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The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned that without timely intervention ‘to stop it in its tracks,’ outbreaks of the highly virulent avian flu virus H5N1, which has already spread to five West African countries in six months, will spread across the region and beyond.

Outbreaks of the virus have been reported in poultry farms, markets and family holdings in Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. FAO said the outbreak comes as countries across West Africa, home to 330 million people, are still recovering from, and in some cases still battling, Ebola, which has mainly affected Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Previous strains of the virus – known to be highly virulent to poultry and capable of causing illness and fatalities in humans – have been circulating in Asia since the early 2000s and in Egypt for almost 10 years. The H5N1 strain has caused the death of tens of millions of poultry and losses of tens of billions of dollars.

FAO is appealing for $20 million for prevention and response to bolster weak veterinary systems, improve the capabilities of local laboratories and putting FAO specialists on the ground in affected and at-risk countries.

Because the disease can be transmitted to humans and is considered highly lethal, FAO said it is working closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) on country assessments, contingency plans, offering technical assistance and investigating potential flu cases and the source of infection.

As well as its high morbidity rate for people zoonotically infected with the virus, there are fears that greater human contact with H5N1 increases the risk of a mutated version of H5N1 becoming capable of direct human-human transmission, resulting in a possible high death rate pandemic. This is a very real threat, as highlighted in a 2012 paper, published in the mBio journal by Michael Osterholm and Nicholas Kelley, of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. The authors state that the available seroepidemiologic data for human H5N1 infection supports the current WHO reported case-fatality rates of 30 percent to 80 percent. In the event of an H5N1 pandemic, if the virus is even one tenth or one twentieth as virulent as has been documented in these smaller outbreaks, the resulting fatality rate would be worse than in the 1918 pandemic, in which 2 percent of infected individuals died.

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