Africa And The Threat Of The Pandemic Bird Flu

25 February 2006 at 00:16 | 550 views

The avian flu is a real threat for third world or developing countries. Sierra Leone, one of the least developed countries in the world, is particularly at risk. Deputy editor Abdulai Bayraytay dissects the problem:

By Abdulai Bayraytay

As fears loom over threats of a global pandemic as a result of the avian influenza, also known as the bird flu, health experts and officials around the world have held and continue to hold series of conferences and workshops in order to strategize on how to handle this health hazard.

As rich western countries stockpile temiflu, the drug commonly used in the event of an outbreak, Canada for instance is working closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) in consultation with international partners like the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control to monitor the safety of poultry products in order to ward off the spread of avian flu.

Whilst efforts of the African Union could be lauded for discussing the issue at different fora, the looming question is what practical strategies have African countries put in place beyond political rhetoric in readiness for this pandemic? Have they, for instance, requested from world bodies like the WHO and the UN including contacting both bi and multilateral partners for stockpiles of temiflu in the event of severe outbreaks?

In Ghana, for instance, the emergence of avian flu in neighbouring Nigeria alerted health authorities to embark on massive primary health education for especially the rural population on the need to wear gloves when handling raw meat, the avoiding of rubbing one’s eyes after contact with suspected sick birds, and the emphasis on basic hygiene. Above all, the government has made provisions to quarantine patients suspected of suffering from the bird flu.

In Sierra Leone, concerns are particularly heightened since the country’s leaders are notorious for mismanaging crises rather than preventing them. This thinking is demonstrated by the fact that apart from a paper presented to colleague doctors by the Director of Disease Prevention and Control, Dr. Alhassan Sesay a fortnight ago in which he professionally discussed the threat of the bird flu and its consequences in the event of an outbreak, the authorities are yet to take the cue from the Ghanaian example by sentisitizing the masses about the disease.

As such, the public is desperately yearning for answers to looming questions of how many stockpiles of temiflu have the government secured should an outbreak occur? How many laboratory facilities are in place so that health officials would be able to test for the virus in order to avoid the expensive mistake of indiscriminately killing poultry that may otherwise suffer from Newcastle (a disease associated with birds and to a large extent resembles the avian flu) that would further impoverish poultry farmers? What compensatory plans have been put in place, if any, that would encourage farmers to destroy their poultry without hesitation in order to control, if not combat, the disease in the event of an outbreak?

As debates on the avian flu continue, the most vulnerable, as usual, are peoples in third world countries, especially those in Africa, where poverty baloons daily to some unprecedented proportions. As such, prevention is all what is feasible for now within the circumstance of the threat of the disease since posterity will surely not forgive any form of negligence on the part of any irresponsible government that would sit by and see its people disappear. This is against the backdrop that the continent is still grappling with the fight against AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and typhoid fever, to mention but a few, that have already claimed the lives of innocent children and their families.

Complementing the above is the fact that Africa’s future rests in the hands of the continent’s youthful population; one that has already suffered in Africa’s debilitating civil conflicts. Thank God Africa’s consolation this time round is that the continent has not been stigmatized for the origin of the disease and its pandemic threat.

The avian influenza virus called H5N1 is spread through secretions and droppings of birds. Experts agree that the chances of the virus transferring from birds to humans is very minimal. The danger, however, is that, if a person with the human influenza contracted the bird flu, then there is the potent possibility that it will become communicable from human to human. When this happens as it did in China in 2004, it becomes deadly hence the rationale behind the need for the preparedness of countries for its outbreak.

Photo: Abator Thomas, Sierra Leone’s Health Minister, left.