Uladi Mussa, Malawi’s agriculture minister, recently outlined his country's preparedness and response plan described as a multi-sector approach which involves stakeholders from the grass-roots levels, donor community and UN agencies.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the Africa's Anglophone conference on avian flu epidemiology and wild bird sampling, he warned that the disease poses a potential human-health hazard resulting from the bird flu virus transmission chain from migratory birds to poultry and then humans.

This often resulted in huge economic losses to the poultry sector through deaths, culling and market bans of chickens and this negatively affects the livelihoods of local communities.

In the past 18 months, avian flu, also known as bird flu, has killed 100 people, mainly in Asia, and resulted in the culling of 200 million domestic birds worldwide.

Bird migration threat

Although the southern Africa region is not yet in serious danger, the region is susceptible to the pandemic, experts say.

The Rift Valley lakes of Eastern Africa hold some of the most significant wetlands in the world. A large variety of migratory birds frequently fly across the Rift Valley and the scattered local wetlands raises the potential that bird flu could make its path southwards.

The Rift Valley lakes attract a
large variety of migratory birds

The disease has also been spotted in Nigeria, Egypt, Niger, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and, most recently, Sudan.

Earlier this year, Egypt reported five human deaths as a result of contracting bird flu from farm birds, such as chickens.

Jester-Kaunga Nyirenda, principal parks and wildlife officer and a specialist in migratory birds’ movement, told Aljazeera.net that two factors necessitate the movement of birds to Africa and the southern region in particular.

He said: "Food and weather are the two determining factors that facilitate movement of birds to this region. When there is plenty food, birds fly to capitalise on the situation.

"Migratory birds also escape from harsh climatic conditions from the northern hemisphere and fly south in order to seek warmth and return when weather conditions are normal." 

Nyirenda said very few birds come to southern Africa for mating but wetlands like Lake Chilwa, Mpasanjoka, Limphasa and Elephant Marsh in Malawi are among the most preferred destinations for migrant birds.

Allocating funds

Hoping to ensure maximum efficiency should bird flu-hit Malawi and neighbouring countries, the National Task Force on Avian Influenza Resource Mobilization for Bird flu prevention and Control in Malawi recently held a briefing meeting with members of the donor community, UN agencies, NGOs and the media in the capital Lilongwe.

Wesley Sangala, chairperson of the task force, said that that 57 million Malawian Kwacha ($410,000) had already been allocated for the preparedness campaigns to be conducted nationwide.

"We are preparing in case of a possible outbreak of the diseases, this is really a serious problem that has affected parts of Asia and Europe. We prepared a budget for the task force and currently we are using our own resources," Sangala told Aljazeera.net.

As part of the emergency preparedness plan families whose domestic birds would be infected with the avian influenza, will be compensated as one way of influencing the citizenry to report cases of bird flu once spotted.

"We are also going to meet donors and other concerned stakeholders to ask for more resources and people will be informed on how to identify the flu, where to report or where to seek assistance," Sangala said.

A bird flu epidemic would destroy
livelihoods of local communities

Dr Wilfred Lipita, director of animal health and veterinary services, says that the Technical Task force comprises of agriculture and health officials who have been involved in massive awareness through the media.

The national taskforce committee include officials from health, agriculture, information, wildlife, other stakeholders and supporting partners.

"The avian flu strategy is currently in place through the emergency preparedness plan. The Food and Agriculture and Organisation (FAO) has assisted us with three vehicles to help us step up awareness campaigns nationwide," Lipita told Aljazeera.net

"Though the outbreak is not yet here, there is a need to … educate the masses about the diseases, since the disease has an economic and social implication on the country's development."

Regional preparedness

In addition to assisting Malawi, the FAO's regional programme to detect and prevent bird flu from spreading includes 11 other countries.

The programme aims to assist countries build capacity to generate and share information on avian flu and to use this emergency preparedness in the event of introduction of the disease.

The programme will also cultivate an understanding of the migratory bird's movement into and within the sub region, building public awareness on the risks relating to avian flu, and strengthening surveillance both in the field and at laboratory level.

In the event of the virus making in roads in the sub region, the FAO programme will undertake diagnosis of the disease and assist countries to prepare emergency contingency plans.