African governments are preparing for the arrival of avian influenza, carried by migratory birds from affected countries, as anxiety over the spread of the virus grows. The bulk of migrations from the northern hemisphere to the south will occur by the middle of next month making the next four weeks crucial.
However, experts disagree over the degree of risk, as some believe migratory birds are much less likely to spread the disease than the poultry trade and the illegal trade in birds.
Phil Hockey, professor at the University of Cape Town, said: "[The disease] has been going north and west when migratory birds have been going south. It can take a bird three months to get from Siberia to South Africa. If it gets bird flu in Turkey, it will die before it gets here."
He expected the disease might first arrive in East Africa via trade in poultry with Asia. Officials should therefore focus their efforts on increasing vigilance at border crossings, he said.
But African health officials warned recently the disease would probably reach the continent within days or weeks as migratory birds left Europe. The highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of the virus has been detected in Turkey, Romania and Russia, and some birds migrating from Asia through these areas pass through Africa.
Bernard Vallat, director general of the World Organisation for Animal Health, said: "It's possibly already in wild ducks on the lakes or the rivers [of Africa] but for the moment it's not in domestic poultry. I hope it will not be transferred to domestic poultry but I think it's very important to be ready for that because the capacity of many African countries [facing] this threat is very different."
Health experts fear that if the virus were to emerge in sub-Saharan Africa, governments there lack the resources and capacity to deal with an outbreak. There are no laboratories in Africa producing bird-flu vaccines and few facilities capable of identifying the virus.
Most African farmers are smallholders, often living in remote areas that lack basic infrastructure, which exacerbates the difficulties of dealing with possible outbreaks on a continent already struggling against Aids and malaria, as well as numerous livestock diseases.
Samuel Jutzi, director of animal production and health division at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, estimated that Africa would need $25m to cope with the prospect of the disease in the short term. He said: "We have to basically face the fact that the virus will come with certainty to the region because it has been travelling from China all the way to eastern and south-eastern Europe without having changed with these migratory birds."
As many as 5.0bn birds cross the Sahara each autumn. A number of African countries have already banned poultry imports. In South Africa, agriculture officials have been conducting random sampling of wild birds along the country's coastline and monitoring the health of domestic poultry.
George Majid, Egypt's environment minister, said the government had been taking measures in co-operation with the American Navy Research Centre (Namro), based in Cairo, to take samples from migrating birds and conduct laboratory checks to ensure Egypt was free of the H5N1 virus.
A Namro official said: "The poultry populations are so important for these economies there is definite concern that anything that happens here in Egypt could affect the region as a whole."
The 60-year-old Namro research base in Cairo has become an important centre for training health officials from the Middle East to Sub-Saharan Africa in surveillance and testing methods.
Other countries likely to be at risk have also been stepping up preparation. The discovery of bird flu in Turkey has prompted Israel to examine its plans for dealing with what it says is a high likelihood of an outbreak of the virus.
Israel and Jordanian agriculture officials met recently to co-ordinate their response. Some 500m migratory birds pass through Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan each spring and autumn to and from Europe and Africa.
Europe is believed to be less at risk from migratory birds, though officials there have been monitoring them for signs of the disease. In the UK, commercial poultry keepers were asked to register their flocks with the government as an aid to handling any outbreak. (Reporting by Fiona Harvey in London, John Reed in Johannesburg, Andrew England in Nairobi, Sharmila Devi in Jerusalem and William Wallis in Cairo.)
Under syndication arrangement with FE