Health and medical organizations throughout West Africa are on high alert following reports that a highly contagious strain of avian flu is quickly spreading through the region. The reports say the flu is wiping out poultry farms and there are fears the virus strain will spread to humans.
The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said poultry farms and markets throughout Burkina Faso, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria have been hit hard with the H5N1 virus which if unchecked has the potential to affect 330 million people across West Africa, a part of the world still reeling from the Ebola crisis.
The news also mean that U.S. farms and health officials will be on high alert as a similar yet less virulent strain of avian influenza has decimated chicken populations across the midwest this year.
FAO head Juan Lubroth said "Urgent action is needed to strengthen veterinary investigation and reporting systems... to tackle the disease at the root, before there is a spillover to humans."
He said in Nigeria 1.6 million birds have been either killed by the disease or have had to be killed to stops its spread, damaging the economy and removing a relatively cheap food source in the impoverished country.
There have not yet been any reported outbreaks in the other West African countries of Cameroon, Mali and Togo Benin, but agricultural groups are on high alert to prevent the virus's spread.
Both local and international medical aid groups are preparing for the worse and many of the measures used recently in attempts to contain the deadly ebola outbreak will be deployed if the virus spreads to humans. The UN has asked for $20 million from donors to respond to the outbreak and prevent its spread.
West African officials have been urged by the U.N. to trace where infected animals had been sold in an attempt to find the sources of the outbreak.
Lubroth said the poultry industry has grown rapidly throughout West Africa in recent years with the Ivory Coast for example reporting a growth of 60 percent. However regulatory systems and veterinary services have not keep pace.
H5N1 bird flu reportedly first infected humans in Hong Kong in Hong Kong, spreading throughout Asia and into Africa and Europe.