Bird flu? What bird flu?

KUMASI, Ghana Bird flu has come to Ghana. The “dangerous disease” was first discovered in the coastal town of Tema in early May,…

KUMASI, Ghana

Bird flu has come to Ghana.

The “dangerous disease” was first discovered in the coastal town of Tema in early May, according to the Ghana News Agency.

Three chickens from a Tema farm tested positive for the H5N1 virus, based on results from the World Organization for Animal Health Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory in Italy (Ghana doesn’t have lab facilities capable of conducting H5N1 tests).

Subsequently, more than 60,000 chickens and eggs were destroyed to stem the outbreak, said the news agency.

Yet somehow, two weeks later, a third case was discovered 500 kilometres across the country, in Sunyani.

“Veterinary officials” culled thousands of birds in Sunyani and destroyed animal feed and farm equipment, reported the Daily Graphic, Ghana’s most established newspaper.

“In its present form, H5N1 is lethal for birds and people in close proximity to infected fowl, but experts fear that it could one day mutate to easily spread from human to human and trigger a deadly pandemic.”

The highway that connects the outbreak in Tema and the one in Sunyani runs through Kumasi, Ghana’s second-largest city, where I live.

Meat, usually chicken, has a way of creeping into dishes here, even when you order plain rice. Ghanaians cooks make a surprised sound tinged with disgust when you ask for no meat.

“There is no bird flu in my kitchen,” said Joanna, a middle-aged woman who operates a food stall cook on Kumasi’s main downtown street.

When asked about the health of her poultry she became indignant, saying that she was aware of the media reports, but had no fear for the safety of the food she served.

“I’m not worried at all.”

Why should she be?

What’s bird flu, anyway?

Ghana may be the eighth African nation to discover H5N1 in its poultry, but this is still Africa, where deadlier diseases, such as AIDS and malaria, are much more common.

Still, the World Health Organization recently reported 185 people killed by the virus worldwide since 2003, mostly in Indonesia and Vietnam.

And the Canadian High Commission in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, is taking the threat seriously.

“As many of you are aware … the Accra Veterinary Laboratory diagnosed potential avian influenza in samples taken from a poultry farm in the Tema Metropolitan Area,” Archie Book, the acting high commissioner, said in a May 9 e-mail to Canadians registered with his office.

The Public Health Agency of Canada recommended Canadian citizens abroad “avoid consuming undercooked poultry and eggs” and “avoid poultry farms and markets where live animals such as chickens and ducks are sold,” the e-mail said.

Following the first recommendation is tricky enough.

Following the second recommendation would mean never leaving the house.

Livestock is ubiquitous in Ghana, as it is in much if not all of Africa.

The market is everywhere, on every street. Along with goats, sheep and (to a lesser extent) cattle, chickens co-exist with humans, on streets and front yards and inside public transport vehicles.

It’s not uncommon to see a basket of tied-down chickens balanced on a market woman’s head, or someone with a handful of live poultry to emerge from a taxicab.

Private residences are the only places one could conceivably prevent contact with animals.

It’s impossible to imagine the consequences of a food-chain emergency in such a culture.

Masses of birds were culled in Sunyani and Tema to control the outbreak, but widespread slaughter would never happen.

You’d never get them all.

Fortunately, Ghana’s bird flu wave seems to have ebbed, for the moment.

Government veterinarians recently blamed several mysterious vulture deaths in Ghana’s western region on “Newcastle disease,” which is similar to avian influenza. What a relief.

But if H5N1 should flare up in Ghana again Ottawa will be of little help.

“Canadian offices overseas are not in a position to provide medicine or medical treatment to Canadian citizens,” warned a communiqué from Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, included in Book’s e-mail.

“Canadians are encouraged to evaluate their own personal circumstances and medical histories to determine whether their continued presence in a country is warranted.”

In the event of a pandemic, borders and airports may close, “departure may not be possible and the ability of the government of Canada to assist may be severely restricted.”

I think I’ll risk offending Joanna, and stick to rice.

Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.

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