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Illegal imports probable cause of Nigeria flu

The H5N1 virus has been found in commercial chicken farms in Nigeria

The recent outbreak of H5N1 avian influenza in Nigeria shows that poultry movements can cause the virus to jump across countries and even continents. With poor enforcement of controls already blamed for outbreaks in China, south-east Asia and Turkey, the Nigerian outbreak further demonstrates that lapses in bio-security are the major reason for avian influenza's continuing spread around the world.

Whilst the precise nature of the outbreak is unknown, it seems more than likely that the virus arrived through infected poultry brought into the country in defiance of Nigeria's import controls.

Speaking at a press conference, Nigeria's Agriculture Minister, Adamu Bello said, "Birds come every day from China, Turkey, into Nigeria, and from Europe and also from Latin America. So Nigeria is exposed. Illegal importation of poultry by people who have farms, bringing in poultry from places and smuggling them in… could also have been a cause." Mr Bello was also reported by Nigeria's Guardian newspaper group as saying: "We think someone may have imported or smuggled in contaminated birds."Large-scale commercial poultry farms need a regular supply of day old chicks, and this has created a global trade in supplying the industry in countries such as Nigeria, which are unable to undertake all the stages of commercial production. Contesting the ban on imports of day-old stock earlier in 2005, a poultry industry spokesman said, "Nigeria does not possess the temperature, weather conditions and much-needed technology to produce Grand Parent stock [day old chickens] now, which is the life wire of poultry business."

"Globalisation has turned the chicken into the world’s number one migratory bird species," said Leon Bennun, Director of Science of BirdLife International. "Movements of chickens around the world take place 365 days a year, unlike the seasonal migrations of wild birds. It is important that strict biosecurity measures are imposed to stop further spread not only within Nigeria but also to neighbouring countries."However BirdLife is concerned that the authorities in Nigeria receive appropriate support and advice from the international agencies managing avian influenza, and that resources are targeted effectively.

It is extraordinary, given the strong circumstantial evidence implicating illegal poultry movements, and the repeated opinion of Agriculture Minister Bello, that some representatives of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization have announced that wild migratory birds are the source of the outbreak.

One senior FAO representative has even been quoted in the press as saying: "If it's not wild birds, it will be difficult to understand. There is no real trade between the Middle East and Asia and Nigeria." Yet according to the websites of China's embassy in Nigeria and their Ministry of Commerce, "The trade volume between the two countries in 2003 reached US$ 1.86 billion," and has continued to grow so that "Nigeria is now China's second largest export market and fourth largest trade partner in Africa".Nigeria is a major oil producing nation, and with around 25 percent of the population of Africa within its borders to provide a market for imports, it is increasingly being sought out as a trading partner. The largest-scale industrial poultry production in Africa is concentrated within Nigeria's northern states. If the global trade in poultry is spreading avian influenza, it was predictable that it would hit Nigeria before other African countries.

"Perhaps the time has come for an independent inquiry into the spread of H5N1 over the past few years," says Bennun. "This could help the world to learn lessons on what could have been done differently to halt the spread of the disease and help to stop further outbreaks."

4th July 2014