By Hilary Bainemigisha
AFRICA has so many problems that it is easy for leaders to be distracted from bird flu vigilance and preparedness. Yet, chances of defeating avian and human influenza are only brighter through early detection and rapid response.
Later than that, the outbreak will be uncontrollable given our resources, infrastructure and way the flu is spread. According to Gustavo A. Win, the development officer of International Media Training, the sponsors chose to train journalists to keep the bird flu threat on the agenda of policy makers, experts, leaders, educators and opinion leaders.
The US department of State, International Broadcasting Bureau and Voice of America hosted journalists from Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, in a workshop on avian and the human pandemic influenza from April 23 to 24.
Experts from UNICEF, WHO, FAO, CDC and Poultry Farmers Associations took 15 journalists through such topics as the basic knowledge about avian flu, preparations for possible pandemic and cross-border transmission. Other topics covered were economic and commercial implications, packaging birdflu messages and evaluation of media role.
Journalists from Sudan, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Zambia, Mauritius, Madagascar, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania appreciated the problem the nature of poultry production in many parts of Africa poses to birdflu control measures.
Most African countries have rapid response teams and action plans in place, but as long as the threat remains outside, there is a risk of relaxation.
â€œEven donors do not come if African countries do not have a good action plan,â€ Dr Joseph M Domenech, FAO chief veterinary officer, said.
â€œOne country failing can bring problems to others. That is why it is an international issue.â€
Avian Influenza, also known as Bird flu, is an infectious disease caused by flu H5N1virus. It can kill 100% of the domesticated birds in a very short time. But the problem is with the H5N1 strain, which easily mutates into a form that can be transmitted from person to person.
Already, WHO figures of April report a total of 172 dead from 291 human infections. In 2007, 11 human cases have been reported and nine of these have died (81%). By February 27, 274 human cases had been reported and 167 (60.9%) had died. The H5N1 strain of bird flu has been confirmed in several African countries including Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Egypt, Sudan and Burkina Faso.
Although Uganda has not reported any incidence, Dr Sam Okware, the commissioner for community health and chairman of the National Task Force on the disease, said the country is ready.
But given our poor health infrastructure â€” as well as its heavy burden of debt, disease and poverty, Uganda will lack sufficient stocks of bird flu vaccines or the drug Tamiflu and the means to distribute them to successfully fight a pandemic.
The journalists concluded that the only effective weapon Africa can deploy against bird flu is an effective communication strategy by educating the public about the risk of outbreaks in their poultry and of a possible human pandemic.