On 16 January 2015, Nigeria confirmed the presence of H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). The disease spread rapidly reaching 26 of the 37 states in the country, affecting poultry farms and live bird markets (LBMs). This marked the first occurrence of H5N1 HPAI in the West African region since the last epidemic in 2006-2008. Since then, other countries in the region, namely Burkina Faso, Niger, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, and Cameroon officially reported outbreaks of the disease. The virus is genetically similar to H5N1 HPAI viruses found in Asia in 2013-2014 and to the one detected in wild birds and poultry in Bulgaria and Romania in 2015, yet different from the H5N1 HPAI viruses currently circulating in Egypt or those that entered West Africa in 2006.
Economic and livelihood implications
The source of virus incursion into the West Africa region may be related to poultry trade or to migratory birds' movements; ongoing spread is facilitated by trading activities. Unaffected countries in the region are on high alert. To date, over 3.3 million poultry died or have already been destroyed in an attempt to control the disease. Livelihoods of poultry farmers and their families as well as poultry production and trade opportunities are at stake, while this zoonotic virus also has the ability to infect and even kill humans. Over recent years, the poultry sector in the region has increased considerably (>12%) to meet the growing consumer demand of poultry products. The current structure and growth of the poultry sector since 2008 as well as the presence of the disease in backyard poultry may now complicate disease control and ability for the public sector to eliminate the virus from poultry production units in the near future. In the wake of the Ebola crisis, this scenario is even more disastrous.
What FAO is doing
FAO continues to respond to requests for assistance from both affected and at- risk countries in West Africa by fielding expert missions to assess the disease situation, evaluating countries' preparedness levels and control strategies and recommending urgent measures for strengthening response activities and laboratory capacity. Building on these recommendations FAO developed a Strategy for H5N1 HPAI Prevention and Control in West and Central Africa, laying out immediate, medium- and longer term interventions. Funds are quickly mobilized from FAO internal resources and donors to assist affected countries and countries at risk in H5N1 HPAI detection and response.
A regional HPAI prevention and control plan for West and Central Africa was adopted after a regional consultation organized in collaboration with ECOWAS with the support of USDA-APHIS and USAID in June 2015. Since then, many workshops in Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Cameroon and other West and Central African countries have been organized locally to raise awareness and train stakeholders in disease recognition, biosecurity measures, and other disease control and prevention strategies. Most recently with the new incursion of the disease into Cameroon, FAO rapidly provided financial and technical support. FAO efforts to halt the spread of HPAI H5N1 in West Africa and to prevent it from becoming endemic are continuing.