CDC expert updates Kenya on Avian Influenza

Kenyan CDC expert Dr Kariuki Njenga tells of Kenya's preparedness for bird flu. "The best way to manage the threat is to control the disease at its source – in birds."

Dr Kariuki Njenga, a Kenyan expert working with the International Emerging Infections Programme in the Kenya office of the US Center for Diseases Control (CDC), delivered a seminar on avian influenza to staff of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) at their Nairobi headquarters on Thursday, 25 November 2005.

Dr Njenga said that the influenza viruses are some of the most intriguing and elusive in the world. Special characteristics of the highly pathogenic avian flu virus strain known as H5N1 increase the likelihood that there will be increased emergence of chimeric (new) viruses, one or more of which could cross over to humans and be transmitted from human to human and cause a flu pandemic.

Increased associations between animals and people, Dr Njenga said, especially in Southeast Asia, is providing a conduit for the avian influenza virus to come into contact with people as they handle dead or dying infected birds. Most of the 122 human cases of the disease, with 62 deaths, so far reported to the World Health Organization have occurred on backyard farms where poultry are kept.

‘Our main concern right now in Kenya and other countries in Africa along the migratory bird flyways’, said Dr Njenga, ‘are backyard chicken farmers’. More than three-quarters of Kenyans are rural farmers and it is estimated that more than 90 percent of them keep chickens. The fear is that wild birds infected with the deadly H5N1 virus strain now migrating to Kenya for the European winter might come in contact with domestic water birds, such as ducks, which then might contact free-scavenging chickens kept by poor rural people, and so the virus could be passed from birds to people. If this happens, the country would have to act within 21 days to contain the infection to prevent the outbreak spreading wide.

ILRI and CDC staff are part of a national task force that has been assembled in Kenya to deal with bird flu. This task force is providing early warning of bird die-offs and strengthening surveillance nationwide, developing a communications network and stock-piling anti-virals so that these are on handle to contain any outbreak. There is no effective vaccine to prevent a pandemic caused by the H5N1 flu strain.

The task force is instructing Kenyans to note any sick or dead birds. They should report these to veterinary or government authorities or they may collect dead birds in plastic bags, using plastic bags to protect their hands as they do so, and take them to their local veterinary officer.

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