Posted by By Daniel Flynn on
Few people in rural northern Nigeria have heard of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, even fewer know how to avoid catching it, and farmers are throwing diseased birds onto fires with their bare hands.
Kano, Nigeria - Few people in rural northern Nigeria have heard of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, even fewer know how to avoid catching it, and farmers are throwing diseased birds onto fires with their bare hands.
The outbreak of H5N1 in Nigeria - its first appearance on the continent - has worried health experts but left almost all those in the affected areas ignorant of the danger facing them.
Trade in live fowl is unabated in the streets and markets of Kano, Nigeria's second-largest city. People carry chickens around in public transport as usual.
'There is not much problem with people getting sick'
In the countryside, farmers in normal clothes and sandals are using their bare hands to throw dead and dying chickens on fires while village children stand by to watch. They say they do not know the nature of the illness killing the birds.
Experts fear the H5N1 strain, which has killed at least 88 people in Asia and the Middle East since early 2003, may mutate into a form that can spread from human to human. They fear this could cause a global flu pandemic that could kill millions.
H5N1 has been confirmed on two farms in the northern state of Kano, and other farmers and villagers are reporting mass deaths of poultry but know little or nothing about the virus.
"I'm not so much worried about it ... There is not much problem with people getting sick," said Ali Mohammed, a security guard in the city of Kano.
One key challenge facing authorities in the fight against bird flu is that poultry is everywhere in Nigeria - in people's village backyards, in city streets, by the side of the road, in crowded markets, on buses.
Chicken is a staple of the Nigerian diet and, as in much of sub-Saharan Africa, most poultry is bought live and slaughtered at home because people have no access to refrigerators.
There has been no report of any human casualty, but it would be difficult for authorities to know because mortality rates are high and people are often buried without a medical check.
In rural areas, most people are far too poor to buy newspapers or television sets. In most villages there is no electricity, running water or paved road. Health services are almost non-existent.
"These are areas where survival is a daily battle. People die of malaria, of other diseases, people are poor, they are malnourished," said a lawmaker from a Kano constituency, who did not wish to be named.
"If their own chickens are dying they will obviously worry about it but otherwise they don't have time to worry about bird flu," he said.
International experts have showered Nigeria with advice on how to contain the virus, but the message is barely getting through to those living closest to diseased birds.
Articles have appeared in Nigerian newspapers recommending the use of protective gloves, face masks and rubber boots when handling poultry, but such equipment is not easy to find and few people can afford it.
The government has ordered suspect birds culled and suspect farms quarantined, but the measures have not been implemented yet and on the ground there has been little sign of a concrete response from authorities.
The government also said it would pay 250 naira (about R18) for every chicken culled in the campaign against bird flu, but it has not given any details of how the scheme will work in practice.
- Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon in Abuja
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