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The disease can jump to humans from infected birds and has killed at least 88 people in Asia and the Middle East since 2003.
Experts have expressed fears that an outbreak in Africa, the world’s poorest continent, could pose a serious threat given already weak public health systems and the fact that many rural people live close to chickens and other poultry.
"We’re on alert," said Cheikh Sadibou Fall, coordinator of the national anti-bird flu committee in Senegal, mainland Africa’s most westerly country.
"We will study the cases to see whether migratory birds will spread the virus, and take appropriate measures ... for the time being, we are on alert against any suspect cases of dead birds," he told Reuters on Wednesday.
Earlier, the World Organization for Animal Health confirmed Africa’s first case of H5N1 in Nigeria, where several thousands of birds have died.
Scientists have long feared birds migrating from Asia and Europe may carry the virus to the continent, probably the least well equipped in the world, in financial and technical terms, to tackle an epidemic.
Celia Abolnik, a senior researcher at South Africa’s Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute, said the institute was expecting samples for testing soon from live waterfowl in Malawi, Sudan and Kenya.
Onderstepoort has been designated as the main testing site for Africa by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the African Union, she said.
"We are alert, but we are not panicking," said Mensah Agyen-Frempong, veterinary services director in Ghana, separated from Nigeria only by the thin territories of Togo and Benin.
"We have staff at ports of entry and they are well briefed," he said. "We are doing random surveys ... keeping an eye on wild birds that flock to the wetlands."
Many regional governments have already taken action, including bans on poultry imports from infected countries.
Gabon, south of Nigeria on Africa’s west coast, unveiled an action plan to deal with the disease, including tougher import restrictions, just hours before the Nigerian case was confirmed.
Import bans will be harder to enforce on some of Africa’s porous land borders, where people and goods cross relatively freely and local laboratory testing capacity is limited or non-existent.
Ivory Coast has already put in place an epidemiological monitoring programme to detect any signs of the deadly virus among humans or animals, Dr Nikaise Lepri Aka, a member of the national anti-bird flu committee, told Reuters.
"We must increase surveillance," following confirmation of H5N1 in Nigeria, he added.
Ghana’s Agyen-Frempong said education should be a major part of the effort to counter the spread of the disease.
"We have contacted our regional and district (veterinary) offices and have given them guidelines for ... educating our farmers ... What is important is for the general public to know what the disease is and what its symptoms are like," he said.
H5N1 bird flu causes persistent fever, cough, shortness of breath and acute respiratory distress in humans. It can lead to multiple organ failure in a matter of days, especially in the lungs and kidneys, and death in up to 80 percent of cases.
There is no certain cure but the anti-viral drug Tamiflu can be effective if used within 48 hours of symptoms starting.
(By Alistair Thomson. Additional reporting by Diadie Ba in Dakar, Kwaku Sakyi-Addo in Accra, Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan, Antoine Lawson in Libreville, Ed Stoddard in Johannesburg)
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