An influenza pandemic could be devastating if sustained virus transmission occurs because there is little or no immune protection in the human population.

Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, HPAI, A-H5NI virus, is influenza "A" virus subtype, popularly known as "bird flu" that occurs mainly in birds and is highly contagious among birds, causing high mortality among domestic poultry. Currently, there are two different groups of H5NI viruses; clade 1 and clade 2 viruses circulating among poultry. Presently, at least three subclades of the clade 2 H5NI viruses have infected humans.

Human infection of the virus is rare and most cases have been associated with direct poultry contact during outbreaks. However, when infection in human occurs, it is very serious as more than half of the people reported infected die of the disease. There is no evidence of sustained human to human transmission, but, because all influenza viruses have the ability to change, scientists are worried that H5NI viruses could be able to infect humans more easily and spread easily from one person to another.

Since the H5NI HPAI crisis started in Asia in 2004, it has killed large numbers of poultry and ducks. 150 million poultry have been destroyed as part of the disease control measures, according to reports.

The World Health Organisation has confirmed 320 human cases of the disease in 12 countries, out of which 193 have proved fatal. The disease is spreading and currently, 64 countries have reported its outbreak. In Egypt, during the first wave of outbreak, over 30 million birds died whereas over 700,000 were reported in Nigeria.

Moreover, according to WHO, in Africa, 52 human cases of HPAI infection were reported amongst which 50 were from Egypt and two from Djibouti and Nigeria. As of October 2008, 23 were reported dead and others critical.

The discovery of the disease in Central Africa in January 2006, calls for much concern. In Cameroon, the H5NI virus was confirmed in domestic ducks in Maroua in the far North Region of Cameroon.

With limited health infrastructures in most Central African countries an AI outbreak could go undetected for many months, which could be catastrophic to human populations who have little or no immune protection.

It is in this context that a team of experts met in Yaounde on February 5 in an inter-ministerial and needs assessment workshop organised by the University of California Center for Tropical Research, in collaboration with the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative and the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, to diagnose how wildlife personnel could conduct surveillance and response to potential AI outbreaks can be increased as well as improving on local animal health, in the Central African region.

Moderating the workshop, a scholar of the University of California Center for Tropical Research, Dr. Kevin Yana Njabo, explained that his institution works in collaboration with the government of Cameroon. He said the government makes the policy and they collect data, which is treated and results analysed if they are good or bad for the country.

To help improve on the situation, he said, the Ministry of Livestock controls border activities (imports and exports) to limit the AI spread. He lamented the fact that there is not enough capacity or resources. That is why, he said, one of the goals of the workshop is to build capacity in order to help in the struggle.

He urged the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Husbandry, Ministry of Scientific Research, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Forestry, and the Ministry of Communication to come together and coordinate the various research organs. To him, the intention is to train African scientists on the AI technology for use in the country.

Presiding over the ceremony, the Inspector General of the Ministry of Livestock, Dr Oumarou Dawa, lauded the initiative of the organisers and expressed the necessity for close collaboration between the different stakeholders to address the public health risk of AI. He also highlighted the issue of limited capacity in terms of infrastructure, human and financial resources of the governments of the Central African region to design and implement programs of surveillance and control for AI.

Workshop participants included experts from the four ministries, representatives from UNDP, WHO, FAO, UNICEF, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, GVFI, WWF and Cameroon Biodiversity Conservation Society.

Panellists, who included Dr. Thomas Dietsch, Dr. Roger Fotso, Dr. Damien Anong, Dr. Vincent Tanya, Dr. Oumarou Dawa, Prof. Gervais Andobo, Dr. Noah Noah, Dr. Mathew Lebreton and Dr. Inrombe threw light on the threat of AI pandemic, the human and animal disease’ surveillance, it detection, diagnostics and reporting.