New Vision (Kampala)

September 19, 2006
Posted to the web September 20, 2006

Fred Ouma

A POSSIBLE outbreak of the H5N1 strain of Avian Influenza (bird flu) in Uganda is now real, public health experts have warned. On September 5, authorities in southern Sudan confirmed the presence of the deadly virus in poultry in the capital city, Khartoum as well as Juba, 180km from the Uganda boarder.

It can kill 100% of the domesticated birds in a very short time. Worse still, the H5N1 strain easily mutates into a form that can be transmitted to human beings.

Five large poultry farms were destroyed north of Khartoum, and tens of thousands of birds have been killed, authorities said. One egg merchant in Khartoum, Hassab Al Rasoul, said people had stopped buying his products, even at discounted prices. In neighbouring Egypt, four people have died of bird flu in recent weeks. The H5N1 strain of bird flu has been confirmed in several African countries including Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Burkina Faso.

The World Health Organisation has reported 190 human cases of bird flu worldwide - more than 100 of them fatal - and the strain has forced the slaughter of millions of birds as the disease has spread from Asia to Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Uganda's threat

The warning comes at a time when many Ugandans are rushing to Southern Sudan, especially Juba, for business opportunities.

Although Uganda has not reported a single incidence, health experts believe the increased traffic flow to and from the Southern Sudan elevates the country's chance of being slapped by the highly infectious virus.

Dr. Sam Okware, the commissioner for community health and chairman of the National Task Force on Birdflu, said Juba, being a two-hour drive from the Ugandan border, makes it possible for the deadly virus to easily spread across into Uganda.

A tray of eggs reportedly costs about sh18,000 in Juba. So, Ugandan traders are flocking Juba with poultry products. Okware says the problem is that materials like trays and vehicles can bring in the virus.

Uganda is particularly considered at risk due to the close proximity between poultry and human beings on small farms such as the affected homesteads in Juba.

Experts also believe that Uganda's other risk factors include many water bodies and its location in the western rift valley, which are sanctuaries for migratory birds responsible for the spread of the disease.

"Avian influenza is a recognised trans-boundary disease. Being in the rift valley, which is a migratory flyway, is a definite risk," said the assistant commissioner for disease control in the Ministry of Agriculture Dr. Chris Rutebarika, who is also leading two teams of experts in the border areas of West Nile and Acholi.

Experts intervene

The teams are in Northern Uganda to help border districts put up rapid response mechanism in the event of an outbreak.

Six more rapid response teams from the agriculture ministry have been strengthened to give support to other "higher-risk" districts bordering water bodies.

Already six species of migratory birds have been cited at Queen Elizabeth National Park, instilling more fears that the risky birds could be returning into the country. Uganda lies on major migratory routes of birds moving to southern Africa from Europe and West Africa.

"We are closely monitoring them (the birds)," said Dr. Patrick Atimnedi of the Uganda wildlife Authority. "We have set up eight special sites to pick samples."

Last month, over 40 samples collected from various parts of the country were analysed at the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) in Entebbe and found negative.

"There is yet no cause for alarm," said Dr. Robert Downing, a researcher with UVRI, adding that tests were still being conducted on the carcasses.

The Government has warned business and border communities against importing any poultry or poultry products. "Authorities at the borders should assist in implementing it," said Dr. Nicholas Kauta, the commissioner for livestock at the agriculture ministry.

Okware said the restrictions in the surveillance zone are likely to be in place for several weeks, but would last for longer if other cases were found.

"We also plan to have a buffer zone around Nebbi district to allow active search and we intend to set up a site for random sampling and testing at Karuma Bridge," he said.

Paul Kagwa, the health ministry spokesperson, said a communication strategy had been developed in Luo, Luganda, Ateso and Runyakitara to raise public awareness about the disease.

Okware said in the event of an outbreak, compensation price for farmers whose birds would be destroyed to prevent further spread of the disease, was yet be negotiated.