11 Feb 2006
The news that the virulent H5N1 strain of the avian flu has surfaced in Nigeria is hardly pleasing to the ears of people living on the African continent. It was certainly very bad news for a continent grabbling with weighty problems like bad governance, poverty and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
On the 9th February 2006, I visited the largest poultry market (at marche centrale) in Cameroon’s economic capital Douala to find out if the tremor from Nigeria’s poultry earthquake was felt there. “I have heard about bird flu but I do not understand the details” said one trader in response to a question.
I asked an elderly trader how he could determine if any of his birds was sick?
“A sick bird will look tired, will rarely eat and the fasces is peculiar” he said.
The birds were packed in congested boxes and the sanitation of the poultry market especially the slaughtering and defeathering section was found wanting.
After advising the poultry traders on some precautions they should take in order to reduce the risk of contamination with the dreaded H5N1 virus, we then had to delve on the possible reaction to a real epidemic among chickens. “If it comes to a situation that the government has to kill all our chickens because of the bird flu, let them prepare to adequately compensate us else they are inviting war” said a young man in his late twenties, adding “The survival of my family depends on this business.”
Overcrowded poultry cages at a Douala market
It is my opinion that the issue of compensation will be of cardinal importance if we ever dream of combating the bird flu in Africa. I fail to see why poultry farmers will spontaneously report outbreaks if there is no incentive. The chances are that some of the dishonest ones would rather smuggle the sick birds into the cold stores to be sold to unsuspecting consumers than report outbreaks to authorities.
At the level of our villages, it is an established fact that most sick chickens are usually slaughtered for food. It is this practice that carries high risk of exposure to the virus.
Knowing my society very well, I am assuming that the H5N1 strain of avian flu is already in Cameroon. I am assuming further that human fatality might have occurred somewhere in this country linked to the avian flu but unknown to authorities. My advice to every African is to make these assumptions and start taking the following precautions.
- Avoid physical contact if possible with chicken and their fasces or clean your hands and feet after contact.
- Report cases of sick fowls to authorities or destroy and bury them in deep holes
- Advise anybody known to you never to eat a sick bird.
- Cook your chicken properly before eating.
- Wash your hands and the surrounding area used for preparing chicken thoroughly
- You should preferably purchase a live chicken so that you can at least witness its physical fitness before it can be killed for food.
- Make it a habit of washing your hands preferably with soap after physical contact like, handshake, using common computer, touching doorknobs, using the restroom etc.
Note that most respiratory viruses enter your body when you touch your eyes and nose with your fingers that have been previously contaminated by physical contact with the virus. Cleaning your hands routinely is the key to limiting contact with a virus like avian flu.
Having said all this it is worth noting that the H5N1 avian flu has an incubation period of about 2 to 8 days in humans. Initial symptoms include fever, influenza-like symptoms, diarrhoea, abdominal and chest pains. Some patients may experience bleeding from the gums and nose during onset of attack.
Given that we are in a continent that most countries neither have the money nor the manpower nor even the will to engage in another fight, we will need more than ingenuity to face this new threat. We are still currently engaged in the fight against malaria, the fight against tuberculosis, the fight against HIV/AIDS etc. I certainly do not think we will have the stomach for a fight against an avian flu pandemic if it does come. It can not be otherwise when we have a country like Cameroon that has a ratio of one doctor to about 16000 people or Malawi that has one to 36000 and has exported more doctors to Manchester (U.K) than can be found in the whole country.
I am afraid the conditions prevailing on this continent are very conducive to make the avian flu select Africa as a permanent home. That is the sad reality.
Copyright© 2006 by Njei Moses Timah.
Njei Moses Timah