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At a glance: Nigeria

Awareness campaign protects women and children against bird flu in Nigeria

© UNICEF Nigeria/2007/Nesbitt
By handling live birds daily, poultry sellers are particularly at risk of contracting avian influenza.

By Christine Jaulmes

LAGOS, Nigeria, 30 March 2007 – After walking through the narrow paths – among stalls of vegetables, fish and meat, and dazed by the loud noise of a pepper-grinding machine – customers come to the poultry section of the bustling Ikotun market in Lagos.

Here they can find live hens, roosters, ducks and pigeons crammed into the cages. Standing beside them are the poultry sellers, almost all of whom are women, many with their young children in tow.

It was at such a market that, in December 2006, a housewife bought some chickens for a Christmas celebration. In January, her 22-year-old daughter, who lived in the same household, died of avian influenza.

Effects on poultry sellers

Although outbreaks among poultry had been reported throughout Nigeria since the beginning of 2006, this was the country’s first known human casualty. Experts believe the victim probably became infected while de-feathering or cutting sick chickens.

© UNICEF Nigeria/2007/Nesbitt
A poultry seller and her child sit next to their bird cages at the Ikotun market in Lagos, Nigeria.

At the onset of Nigeria’s avian influenza outbreak, widespread panic had caused many people to stop consuming chickens. Many poultry farms were closed down, and poultry farmers and sellers were forced out of their jobs.

“Before the rumour of bird flu came out saying that people shouldn’t eat chicken, I would normally sell 40 to 60 birds within a week,” said Ms. Yusuf, a poultry seller at the Ikotun market. “But now, I only sell about 10 in two to three weeks.”

State of denial

Because they handle, slaughter and pluck live birds daily, poultry sellers are at particular risk of catching the virus. Unsanitary conditions also threaten the well-being of children brought to the cramped market by their mothers.

Despite the risk, most poultry sellers do not like to talk about the subject. Many are still in denial.

“Since last year [when] you started talking about bird flu, it has not come to our market,” insisted a leader of the sellers, Kudirat Fasasi. “The bird flu you are talking about does not concern us here!”

© UNICEF Nigeria/2007/Nesbitt
Women from different communities attend a bird flu awareness meeting organized by the Lagos local government.

Protecting women and children

Targeting high-risk groups like these poultry traders, the Nigerian Government has made awareness and education key components of the fight against bird flu. With support from partners such as UNICEF and the Government of Japan, the authorities have focused efforts on disseminating accurate information, as well as promoting hygienic practices to safeguard women and children against the disease.

“There are a lot of risky behaviours in Nigeria,” explained Director Tunde Awobiyi of the Lagos State Ministry of Information. Mr. Awobiyi also chairs the State Public Enlightenment Committee on Avian Influenza.

“Many people keep birds at home, so we have sent messages out that people should keep distance from poultry,” he continued. “Women and children are those who are most exposed because they are the ones who take care of the birds, and slaughter and prepare them.”

Cleanliness and hygiene

The Lagos State Ministry of Information also organizes meetings and dialogues on avian influenza, targeting the high-risk groups like the poultry sellers. It is not always easy to persuade these women to come to the meetings, but those who do attend say they have learned how to protect themselves and their families.

After listening to a presentation made by a veterinarian, one poultry seller, Ms. Anuoluwapo, realized that bird flu was to be regarded as a serious matter.

“I used to think that the bird flu campaign was a way to spoil our business,” she said. “But now that I have come to this meeting, I understand what it is. We will do all we ought to do about cleanliness and hygiene.”




March 2007:
UNICEF correspondent Kun Li reports on Nigeria’s efforts to contain outbreaks of avian influenza by reaching high-risk groups with lifesaving messages about the disease.
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