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West Africa Wild Birds Under Scrutiny in Flu Checks

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  • West Africa Wild Birds Under Scrutiny in Flu Checks

    West Africa Wild Birds Under Scrutiny in Flu Checks
    SENEGAL: February 15, 2006

    DJOUDJ - One of West Africa's biggest bird sanctuaries on a main migration route to Europe is stepping up checks for bird flu as UN officials warn wildfowl returning from the region could spread the virus even wider.

    Hundreds of thousands of wild birds from Europe spend winter on the Djoudj wetlands, which run along Senegal's northern border with Mauritania, and will start their return journey over the next few months.

    Deadly H5N1 bird flu, which has killed at least 91 people in Asia and the Middle East, was detected in poultry in Nigeria last week, the first cases in Africa. The strain was also confirmed in wild birds in the European Union for the first time at the weekend.

    "We have surveillance teams working 24 hours a day around the park looking for dead birds," said Ibrahima Diop, head conservationist at the 16,000-hectare (39,540-acre) site.

    "The risk is there, but up to now no case has been seen," he told Reuters, peering through binoculars at a flock of Garganey, Pintail and Shoveler ducks from northern Europe.

    Diop said that should there be an outbreak of bird flu in the area, wild birds were more likely to die before they could migrate and export it. But some scientists fear ducks may be able to host and spread the virus without succumbing to it.

    The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said bird flu could spread further into Europe in the spring, when wildfowl that spend the winter in Africa returned.

    "The virus seems to be circulating quite widely in Nigeria, which is in the same area where European migratory birds winter," Samuel Jutzi, director of FAO's Animal Production and Health Division, told reporters in Rome.
    "We need to be aware that there's a real risk for Europe when the birds migrate northwards this spring," he said.


    Local villagers who grow rice and herd cattle around the Senegal River delta, a network of seasonally flooded ponds and backwaters around Djoudj, had set up voluntary teams to help the park's 16 rangers with their patrols.

    Diop was expecting a consignment of gloves and ice boxes from the capital, Dakar, as well as more fuel for his boats, so that he could transport any suspected cases to one of two laboratories in Senegal registered to carry out clinical tests.

    Experts say there is a risk that H5N1 found in birds will mutate so it can pass easily from person to person, which could cause a pandemic that could kill millions of people.

    At present, humans can only contract bird flu through close contact with an infected animal, something that is far less likely with wild birds than with farmed flocks.

    "There has been a strong campaign to inform those who live on the edge of the park to tell them they shouldn't pick up dead birds," said Diop, who was also in daily contact with wildlife officials on the Mauritanian side of the border.

    Conservation groups have argued there is little evidence to back the view that migrating wildfowl are spreading bird flu, saying poultry imports are a more likely cause.

    "A migratory bird that is infected cannot get very far, let alone to Europe," said Diop, who has worked at the Djoudj national park for 10 years.

    "You cannot stop birds migrating but what is sure is that the ones that will arrive in Europe will be the ones that are fine and healthy," he said.

    (Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi in Rome)
    Story by Nick Tattersall
    ...when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. - Sherlock Holmes