The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today expressed “growing concern” that the deadly bird flu virus may spread to other countries in West Africa following its discovery in Nigeria last week, and warned that the effect on the already impoverished region would be devastating.The Rome-based agency said that the country of greatest concern was Niger, which directly borders the affected areas in Nigeria and where over two million people are already vulnerable to acute hunger.“We should provide incentives to poor African farmers to report immediately if they suspect an outbreak among poultry, and discourage them from rushing to sell birds on the market,” said Joseph Domenech, FAO’s Chief Veterinary Officer, who is currently in Nigeria with a joint team of experts.“The highly pathogenic avian influenza virus poses a very serious threat to animal health in West Africa. If a poultry epidemic should develop beyond the boundaries of Nigeria the effects would be disastrous for the livelihoods and the food security of millions of people,” said Mr. Domenech.FAO said that since the first reports of outbreaks of the H5N1 virus in Asia at the end of 2003 nearly 200 million domestic poultry had died or been culled in order to contain the spread of the disease. The economic loss to the affected Asian countries has been estimated at around $10 billion.In contrast to Europe, where most poultry production takes place on large commercial farms, in Africa poultry is often raised in backyards and is therefore more difficult to control. Widespread public awareness campaigns regarding safe farming practises and improved hygiene are essential to help contain the spread of the virus, the UN agency said.”People need to be informed about the importance of basic hygiene notably washing hands after touching poultry and disinfecting boots or shoes before entering or leaving a poultry farm,” said Juan Lubroth, Senior Officer of FAO’s Animal Production and Health Division.FAO has advised veterinary authorities in Nigeria to stamp out the outbreaks through immediate humane culling and safe disposal and to strictly control the movement of people and animals from and to infected areas and neighbouring countries. Many countries, including Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Mauritania have prepared bird flu contingency plans. “Such plans and field operations must be fully supported by national governments with participation of the private sector. The international community should continue to provide expertise and financial resources,” Mr. Lubroth added.During the last two years, several countries have reported outbreaks of avian influenza caused by the H5N1 virus in people, and close to 100 have died, most of them in Viet Nam. So far, the virus has only spread from infected animals to humans, but the World Health Organization has warned that it could change into a form that spreads easily from person to person, triggering an influenza pandemic that could kill tens of millions of people worldwide. The World Bank has estimated that a human influenza pandemic caused by a virus mutated from avian flu could cost the global economy $800 billion per year.Last month, donors pledged $1.9 billion to fight the spread of the disease, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for a massive, coordinated international response to the virus.