ROME -- As bird culls to control probable new outbreaks of bird flu started on farms in Russia and Macedonia, U.N. officials here warned yesterday that their far larger concern was that the virus was on its way to East Africa, where the disease could be nearly impossible to control.
As bird flu has jumped this year from Southeast Asia to China, Russia, Kazakhstan and - more recently - into the Balkan region of Europe, scientists have become somewhat belatedly convinced that wild migratory birds are one of the main carriers of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza.
Although there is widespread anxiety about the arrival of bird flu in Europe - European Union health ministers will convene a special session today to discuss the problem - the next stops on bird migratory pathways are not in Western Europe, but in the Middle East, North Africa and East Africa, United Nations, officials here say.
Countries and farmers in these parts of the world, particularly in East Africa, are completely unprepared, lacking the money and scientific infrastructure to control outbreaks of the virus, the U.N. officials said.
"One of our major concerns is now the potential spread of avian influenza through migratory birds to North and Eastern Africa," said Dr. Joseph Domenech, the chief veterinary officer at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which monitors the spread of the disease in animals.
If the disease touches down there, it could well become widespread in the environment and on farms before it is even detected, he said.
Also, because in poorer African nations people live in close proximity with animals, such a situation would provide a dangerous crucible for the mixing of the bird and human viruses, vastly increasing the risk that the avian virus could gain the ability to readily spread among humans.
"The close proximity between people and animals and insufficient surveillance and disease control capability in eastern African countries create an ideal breeding ground for the virus," Domenech said.
While H5N1 bird flu does not readily infect humans or spread between them, scientists fear that it could acquire that ability through biological mixing processes by which viruses can exchange genes if they are close together. If the H5N1 strain were capable of spreading from person to person, they say, it could be the source of a devastating human flu pandemic.
In developed nations, bird flu outbreaks are controlled by aggressive public health measures. Once the virus is suspected - usually signaled by unusual bird deaths - it is then stamped out by a combination of preventive culls and quarantines, even before the actual presence of the virus is confirmed. Confirmation of H5N1 often takes a few days, since bird specimens must be sent to a specialized reference lab for typing.
In Macedonia, for example, health authorities were killing 10,000 birds in a small southern village yesterday as they waited for tests to be performed in England, to confirm that the H5N1 strain was involved. Another possible outbreak was reported in the Tula region in Russian, just west of the Urals.