West Africa now threatened by Avian Flu - Human spillover possible

Apart from the ongoing Ebola Virus Disease outbreak, which has devastated the economies of several West African countries, now Influenza A H5N1, also known as Avian Flu or Bird Flu, a highly pathogenic strain of the influenza virus, has spread to five countries in the region, threatening to wipe out the poultry industry and put further strain on the population.

Another group of countries in the same region, namely Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Republic of Guinea have been struggling to control a deadly outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease over the last year and a half since March 2014. The disease has caused, to date, 11,284 deaths among 27,741 cases and is ongoing: over the week until July 19, according to the latest World Health Organization figures, a further 26 cases of Ebola Virus Disease have been confirmed in Conakry and Freetown, the capital cities of the Republic of Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Highly virulent strain of Bird Flu

Outbreaks of A H5N1, which affects mainly chickens, ducks, geese, swans and turkeys, have been reported in Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cote d'Ívoire and Ghana. The A H5N1 is a highly virulent strain of Influenza.

Influenza A H5N1 is one of the family of Orthomyxoviruses, which causes respiratory infection in the host. The characteristics of the H glycoprotein (Hemagglutinin, which is spike-shaped, poking out from the surface of the virus) and the N enzyme (Neuraminidase, allowing the glycoproteins to exit the host cell and spread) in the H5 subtype makes this type of virus more prone to attaching and interacting with Avian cells, as there are no swine or human components to this genome.

Yet that does not mean that humans cannot catch it. From 2003 to 2013 there were over 600 human infections registered with a mortality rate of over 60 per cent and the H5 family does have the capacity for human-to-human transmission chains because it has happened.

While the WHO has stated that this virus is "unlikely to spread among humans", the WHO expert from the Global Influenza Program Elizabeth Mumford stated in Geneva in December 2014 at a Press Conference that "if it is circulating widely, there is no reason why we shouldn't see human cases".

The current virus appeared in the PR China in 1996 and the current outbreak swept across that country, Japan and Republic of Korea earlier in 2014 causing millions of birds to be destroyed. It then appears to have been carried to Europe by migrating wild birds, appearing in Mecklenberg, Western Pomerania, Germany on November 6 2014 on a turkey fattening farm (1.880 birds died), then on November 16 in the Netherlands, on a chicken farm in Hekendorp (1,000 layer and breeding hens died and some 149.000 were destroyed) and then, in Nafferton, East Yorkshire, Northern England on a duck breeding farm. 338 ducks died and 6.000 were culled. Now it is in West Africa.

"Before there is a spillover to humans"

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is very concerned and has warned that the outbreak spreading across West Africa today must be stopped. Juan Lubroth, Head of the Animal Health Service Division has claimed that "Based on what we do know, there is a real risk of further virus spread", adding that "Urgent action is needed to strengthen veterinary investigation and reporting systems in the region and tackle the disease at the root, before there is a spillover to humans".

At the very least, a widespread outbreak of this virus could cause a massive die-off of poultry in a region which is highly dependent on chicken, a nutritious and inexpensive source of food for many of the people in the region.

Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey


([email protected])

*Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey has worked as a correspondent, journalist, deputy editor, editor, chief editor, director, project manager, executive director, partner and owner of printed and online daily, weekly, monthly and yearly publications, TV stations and media groups printed, aired and distributed in Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, East Timor, Guinea-Bissau, Portugal, Mozambique and São Tomé and Principe Isles; the Russian Foreign Ministry publication Dialog and the Cuban Foreign Ministry Official Publications. He has spent the last two decades in humanitarian projects, connecting communities, working to document and catalog disappearing languages, cultures, traditions, working to network with the LGBT communities helping to set up shelters for abused or frightened victims and as Media Partner with UN Women, working to foster the UN Women project to fight against gender violence and to strive for an end to sexism, racism and homophobia. He is also a Media Partner of Humane Society International, fighting for animal rights. 

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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey