By Onche Odeh
Another pandemic that could complicate current efforts to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic may just be around the corner, human and animal scientists have warned.
Their concerns come on the heels of recent reports of a serial outbreak of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) which have symptoms that are similar to COVID-19 once they infect humans in parts of Nigeria. There are also fears of transborder spread considering the porous West African borders.
Nigeria’s National Veterinary Research Institute (NVRI), Vom, Plateau State had, on January 29th 2021 reported cases of outbreaks of H5N1, the highly contagious strain of the avian flu virus, in two backyard farms of multiple species of birds, including turkey, geese, ostriches, layers and peacocks in Kano, northwestern Nigeria.
Within a space of one week, further outbreaks were confirmed in two commercial farms in the state and another in Jos, Plateau State in the North central part of the country, an indication that the disease is rapidly spreading to other states.
Following up on this, the Department of Veterinary and Pest Control Services of Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD), in a memo dated 3rd February, 2021 raised the alert level with a request to all states and the federal capital territory to activate emergency preparedness plan to prevent the escalation of the highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza.
In the memo signed by the Chief Veterinary Officer of Nigeria (CVON), Dr Olaniran Alabi, the government requested, among other measures, the enforcement of movement control for poultry and poultry products from the affected to non-affected states.
Experts who have reacted to the report and the memo said the concerns are not out of place. They are particularly worried about the virulent nature of the virus, especially when it enters humans.
Studies have found that, of all influenza viruses that circulate in birds, the H5N1 (HPAI) bears the greatest human health concern because of its ability to infect humans, raising the risk of a pandemic. They have also expressed worries that an outbreak of H5N1 in humans now may complicate current efforts to curb the COVID-19 pandemic as both share similar symptoms.
Public Health Expert, Dr Tunde Olujobi, who is Board Member, Ekiti State Primary Healthcare Development Agency said allowing a H5N1 outbreak to linger in Nigeria portends a far-reaching danger with global consequences especially at this time that the world is battling COVID-19.
In his response to Africasti, Dr Olujobi said, “After an absence of around 10 months, H5NI, the Highly Pathogenic Avian influenza (HPAI) virus was detected again in a Nigerian poultry flock in mid-December last year according to the official report of the World Organisation for Animal Health.
“One of the concerns is the similarities of the Avian flu outbreak and the COVID-19 pandemic. As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to evolve, comparisons have been drawn to influenza. Both causes respiratory disease and have serious implications for the public health measures needed to respond to each virus.”
H5N1 in humans have symptoms like fever with high temperatures above 38°C, cough, sore throat, and muscle aches, abdominal pain, chest pain and diarrhoea. The infection may progress quickly to severe respiratory illness like difficulty in breathing or shortness of breath, pneumonia and other symptoms that are similar to those of COVID-19.
Although domestic chicken, ducks, geese, turkeys, guinea fowl and pheasants are the natural hosts for the virus, it has also been found occasionally in pigs, dogs and cats at varying levels raising concerns of multiple channels of human infection.
The WHO says there have been 862 cases and 455 deaths from H5N1 among humans across 17 countries globally between 2003 and 2020.
Professor of Avian Medicine at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Abuja, Nigeria, Adamu Ogbe, told Africasti that most of the risk factors that could trigger a deadly outbreak of the highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza of the H5 class abound in Nigeria.
In an interview that held concurrently during his lecture with a section of students from University of Abuja’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Prof. Ogbe said the time to act is now.
“Occasionally, wild birds carrying the low pathogenic strain of avian influenza migrate to Nigeria and other countries. Through their faecal matter (droppings), these birds can pass on the virus to susceptible animals. Inside the new host, the low pathogenic strain can become virulent through genetic mutation or by re-assortment,” he said.
“The concern is that many people who are not aware of this virus in wild birds and the associated dangers handle them carelessly, leaving themselves at the risk of being infected. We have seen a case where a vulture fell from the sky and some research assistants rushed to grab it, despite showing classical manifestations of HPAI. Upon investigation in the laboratory, it was truly found to have HPAI. Those who rushed to grab the vulture risked being infected with H5N1,” Prof. Ogbe said, while narrating a personal experience in this regard,
Nigeria has an estimated poultry population of around 180 million birds, largely concentrated in the south-western part of the country, where COVID-19 has ravaged the most. 60% of Nigeria’s poultry production takes place in small backyard flocks. Large-scale commercial farming of poultry occurs mainly in the northern states, where outbreaks have been confirmed.
Past studies have shown that poultry famers and workers are high-risk groups in avian influenza virus transmission. Live bird markets have also been found to play an important role in its spread from birds to humans.
Although the Nigerian government has moved swiftly to curb the recent outbreak by issuing a directive to all states in the federation to raise an Emergency Preparedness Plan to nip the outbreak early, experts have said such moves must be backed with knowledge from past and current efforts of researchers in the field.
“The necessary government agencies have to act fast before the Avian flu co-habits with the existing COVID-19 strain and then mimic each other in presentation of signs and symptoms there by leading to morbidities and mortalities. This has to be prevented by all means…” Dr. Olujobi said.
Public Health Veterinarian, Dr. Olukayode Oyeleye said veterinary and human medics must work together to curb HPAI in Nigeria.
“The presence of HPAI would also have been easier to detect had the veterinary and human medics cooperated and worked together closely with the mission to accomplish a well-articulated common goal of poultry disease management and public health,” Dr. Oyeleye told Africasti.
Speaking on vaccination of birds as a preventive measure for HPAI in Nigeria, he said, “The whole idea of vaccination should have been easier to do if the farms and their birds population were easily delineated through seromonitoring. It is therefore not advisable going on to just vaccinate when birds’ serology has not been carried out.”
On the danger of allowing HPAI fester in Nigeria, Dr. Oyeleye who was Senior Special Adviser to Dr. Akinwumi Adesina as Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development said, “Not paying attention to HPAI was also an unwarranted risk for the human population. The confusion in the Nigerian case during the onset of AI epidemic looks very much like a microcosm of the global response to COVID-19.
“At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a panicky world resorted to a measure that stood a major public health principle on its head – the decision on mass vaccination, especially without testing in many nations, including Nigeria.”
University of Abuja’s Prof Ogbe recommends a recur to previous works of researchers and reactivation of all inter-state and international livestock control points as immediate measures to curb spread of the outbreak and any pandemic that may be lurking.
“There are so many works that have been done previously on how to curb HPAI in birds and prevent human infections. We should just go back to those works. So much have been done in the area of alternative medical solutions that could be leveraged. So let us go back to the books,” he said.
The first human case of avian influenza was reported in Hong Kong in 1997. Since then there have been several cases in humans.
Although there has only been one confirmed case of human death attributable to H5N1 in Nigeria since January 2007, experts say numbers may be misleading in this case.