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Bird flu death alarms some Nigerians, others shrug

By Tume Ahemba
Reuters
Friday, February 2, 2007; 8:17 AM

LAGOS (Reuters) - Nigeria's first human death from bird flu has jolted some people into taking chicken off the menu, but live poultry markets are still busy with buyers.

The government said on Wednesday that a 22-year-old woman died of bird flu in Lagos after handling infected chicken -- the first human fatality from the virus in sub-Saharan Africa.

"Now that someone has died, there is no more cooking of chicken in my house. One must be careful," said a fruit seller at a Lagos market who gave her name as Mama Bose.

Aisha Galadima, who sells frozen chicken and fish at a shop in the bustling commercial capital, said she would change her business in light of this week's news.

"How do I know chicken that are infected from those that are not? Once my stock runs out I will not replenish to be on the safe side," she said.

But at a busy chicken market in the city's Iganmu district, traders surrounded by hundreds of poultry in basket-like cages said they were not worried by the young woman's death.

"This is a seasonal problem which we are used to. Nobody is losing any sleep," said market leader Umaru Mohammed.

He was referring to the fact that chicken often die in large numbers at this time of year in Nigeria due to an unrelated disease. This has caused some poultry farmers to play down the risk from bird flu.

The traders looked unlikely to see their business dry up.

"I ate chicken yesterday and I will eat it again today, bird flu or not. The secret is cook the meat very well," said Halima Adamu, a shop owner in the upmarket Ikoyi district.

HIGH RISK

Bird flu has killed at least 164 people worldwide since 2003. Experts fear it could trigger a deadly pandemic if it mutates into a form that passes easily from person to person.

Nigeria was the first African country to detect bird flu in chicken. It confirmed the first case in northern Kaduna state a year ago and the disease has appeared in 17 of the 36 states.

Direct contact with infected poultry is the most common way for people to catch bird flu, and in that respect Nigeria is a high-risk country.

Millions of Nigerians keep poultry in their backyards and in the absence of refrigerators in most households, birds are transported and sold live, and killed just before eating.

The majority of Nigeria's 140 million people are too poor to afford the luxury of rejecting diseased birds.

In addition, the nation faces pressing health issues that relegate bird flu to a low priority for most people.

Almost one in five Nigerian children do not reach their fifth birthday according to UNICEF figures. Five Nigerian states account for 70 percent of the world's cases of polio, according to the World Health Organization. And the country has the world's third biggest caseload of people living with HIV/AIDS.

Many Nigerians die young of a variety of diseases and few families can afford to have a doctor determine the cause of death. This has caused experts to worry that some cases of bird flu may have gone undetected.




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