The only way for Africa to combat bird flu successfully is through an effective communication strategy that enables the public to prepare both for outbreaks in their poultry stocks and for a possible human pandemic.
Three weeks ago, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization's deputy director-general said that by arriving in Turkey, the H5N1 bird flu virus had reached the crossroads of Asia, Europe and Africa, and that there was a real risk of it spreading further.
"If it were to become rooted in the African countryside, the consequences for a continent already devastated by hunger and poverty could be truly catastrophic," he added.
His words were prophetic. Last week, Africa's first outbreaks of H5N1 were detected in poultry farms in northern Nigeria, meaning that bird flu is now a real spectre hovering over the entire continent.
Since emerging in Asia in 2003, the virus has killed 91 of the 169 people confirmed to have been infected.
Should Africans be concerned? A journalist in Kampala, Uganda, asked me this question several weeks ago. At that time, when bird flu was a risk rather than a reality, Africans could afford to be complacent. But no longer. Every African man, woman and child must be sufficiently informed about the bird flu virus, for the following reasons.
Reasons for concern
First, H5N1 can swap genes with other flu viruses. Experts fear that when people with the human flu virus become infected with H5N1, the bird flu virus could acquire some genes from the human flu virus and, with them, the ability to spread from person to person.
The virus also mutates easily — meaning it could acquire this ability on its own, without needing to mix with other flu viruses. So far, the virus has not acquired the ability to spread between people but if it did, it could start a worldwide flu pandemic that claims millions of lives.
This is a global public health disaster waiting to happen. Scientists say a human flu pandemic is overdue and it is therefore prudent to take the view that the question is not if, but when, this will take place.
Second, infected birds can spread the virus for more than a week in their saliva, nasal secretions, and faeces. How long the virus can then remain viable on contaminated ground under tropical conditions remains unknown.
Many African villages border on swamps and wetlands, and there is a high risk that domestic poultry, which is normally kept outdoors, will be infected as they scavenge for food. Domestic ducks can shed virus for up to 17 days even if they show no signs of disease.
Crowded poultry markets, with their inevitable bird droppings, constitute another important source of infection. Africa's poultry markets and wetlands must therefore be the priority battlegrounds in the war against bird flu.
Third, a taste for pork has spawned a thriving pig-rearing industry in countries such as Uganda. Pigs can be infected with both human and bird flu viruses and might serve as 'mixing vessels' for the emergence of a mutated virus capable of spreading from person to person.
Since pigs live close to people and poultry, they could be an important intermediary for human infection, so farmers should keep pigs and poultry apart.
Fourth, Africa's poor health infrastructure — as well as its heavy burden of debt, disease, and poverty — means the continent will lack sufficient stocks of bird flu vaccines or the drug Tamiflu and the means to distribute them to successfully fight a pandemic.
Effective communication is key
Given the above factors, the only weapon Africa can affordably deploy against bird flu is an effective communication strategy for educating the public about the risk of outbreaks in their poultry, and of a possible human pandemic.
Even before H5N1 arrived in Nigeria, organisations such as the World Bank and UN Food and Agricultural Organization were warning of the enormous potential danger of the virus taking hold in Africa, and outlining steps that should be taken to prevent or contain outbreaks.
Were Nigerian communities well prepared for H5N1 as a result? The sad truth is that they were not. And now ill-informed sections of the Nigerian media are passing incorrect information to the public. This is a serious communications problem, not only for Nigeria, but also for the whole continent.
The African media must be urgently empowered to pass reliable messages about bird flu and its associated risks to the African public. A well informed media can undertake the following roles.
First, working in partnership with veterinary and public health officials, the media can communicate correct information about bird flu in simple but powerful messages.
Second, the media can demand that effective practices and policies to contain bird flu outbreaks are implemented, even under resource-poor settings. For example, a simple early warning system would allow farmers to report sick or dead poultry promptly. But to be effective, the media must urge governments to compensate farmers whose flocks will be culled; otherwise farmers will be reluctant to report dead birds.
Third, the media can prod national institutions out of their inertia and into action. How many national networks, for example, have been set up to monitor the wetlands and adjoining human settlements for dead birds that might be harbouring H5N1?
How many laboratories in Africa have built a capacity to detect H5N1, a move that would overcome the need to send samples abroad for testing? And how much air-time have African radio stations devoted to messages about bird flu?
Finally, public panic such as that reported in Nigeria could prompt people to kill healthy wild birds unnecessarily. The media can raise public awareness that migratory waterfowl in wetlands, rather than the marabou storks in Kampala City, constitute the biggest risk to their poultry and families. But at the same time, they should tell the public to avoid any contact with ill birds — and to report any such birds they encounter.
These are monumental tasks for a media community in Africa that is ill-prepared to take on such a challenge. Training in media skills and accurate science reporting — whether through relatively short seminars or longer journalism fellowships and graduate training — remain the only way to build the media's skills in communicating effectively not only about bird flu, but also about many other pressing medical and public health issues.
Africa is facing a wide range of these challenges, including malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and periodic outbreaks of meningitis, cholera, and Ebola — as well as a commitment to meet the Millennium Development Goals.
The arrival of H5N1 in Nigeria is a wake-up call for Africans in general — and the media in particular — that something has to change, and that better communication is the key. After all, there is no one else to pass the buck to.
Thomas Egwang is chief executive officer of Uganda Media for Health (UM4H) and director general of Med Biotech Laboratories, in Kampala, Uganda.