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Smallscale poultry producers: falling foul of avian flu?

Poultry markets should be one focus for avian flu monitoring efforts
Poultry markets should be one focus for avian flu monitoring efforts

The spread of avian influenza has dominated news headlines around the world, as outbreaks of the H5N1 strain spread first in East Asia, and subsequently across Asia and into Europe. In February this year the first cases were reported in Africa, and by April, five African countries - Egypt, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Burkina Faso - had officially confirmed deaths of birds to the virus. West African countries have already begun to plan a regional control strategy, and elsewhere on the continent, governments are planning how poultry flocks can be protected and outbreaks quickly detected and controlled should they occur. But experts fear that Africa's poor human and animal health services, large backyard poultry population, and lack of resources to fight bird flu make it an easy target for the disease. In Niger, for instance, it took a month from discovery of the outbreak of avian flu to start culling of poultry in all affected areas, and the country has already called for international assistance stating that it lacked the resources to carry out control procedures.

Poultry for the poor

For poor livestock keepers, free-ranging, scavenging poultry are especially important in providing nutrition for the family and for income generation. Women and children are particularly involved in small-scale poultry production: some children from poor African households pay their school fees from their backyard poultry micro-enterprises. Avian influenza can therefore impact on the poor in a number of ways. Direct losses result from the death of their birds following outbreaks of the disease, whilst additional losses can result from official culling of at-risk birds. Compensation in developing countries is not always available and, if paid, is unlikely to represent the full market value of the birds, nor to compensate for future loss of earnings. And in the absence of outbreaks, fear of the disease may still damage local markets as consumers switch to other sources of animal protein. Ethiopian Airlines proudly now announce on their flights that poultry products are no longer served - despite the zero-risk that cooked poultry products represent.

Faced with these difficulties, the poor in developing countries have few options and extreme situations can provoke desperate reactions. Reports have been filed of poor poultry owners in Nigeria hiding their birds from official culling teams as compensation was considered inadequate, and of villagers being arrested for feeding on culled birds retrieved from disposal pits. In these situations, human infection from avian flu is much more likely. Worldwide, over 100 people have now died from the disease and in Egypt more than ten people were infected and several women died over the three months since the outbreak was first reported. Women are particularly vulnerable as they are often responsible for slaughtering and cooking domestic poultry.

Keeping an eye on the game

For poor producers in countries as yet unaffected by avian flu there are few steps that can be taken to protect their livelihoods. Whilst migration of birds carrying avian flu is difficult to control, trade can play a significant role and may have contributed to the outbreak of the disease in commercial farms in Nigeria. Even for smallholders, it is important that any live birds bought at market should be kept quarantined from the existing flock until it is clear that no disease is present. However, at national level, there is a clear need for well thought out surveillance systems, pro-poor policies and public awareness campaigns.

Penning poultry could help to minimise contact with other birds and reduce the risk of disease spread
Penning poultry could help to minimise contact with other birds and reduce the risk of disease spread

In Kenya, with assistance from the Veterinary Department in the Ministry of Livestock Development, the government has put in place District Emergency Preparedness Plans. This has involved extensive training of veterinary staff, and civil society organisations, NGOs and local government to not only educate the farmers on the dangers of avian influenza, but also to spread the message on the need for rapid reporting of suspected cases. However, whilst good surveillance and reporting are essential, says Duncan Mwangi, a research scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), "diagnostic services for avian influenza are another key cornerstone in preventing the spread of the disease."

Mwangi will be one of a number of representatives from researchers, donors, and the private sector, who will meet to share existing experiences and explore how research can support improved control of the disease at a meeting to be held at ILRI at the end of May, 2006. The intention is to set priorities to guide those who manage or invest in research which ultimately will contribute to policies and systems being put in place so that millions of small-scale keepers and traders throughout the developing world maintain their livelihoods in this vital sector.

Written by: Keith Sones

Date published: May 2006


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