Bird Flu Risk Particularly Strong in Sub-Saharan Africa

Of any place on the planet, Niger may be least equipped to deal with an outbreak of bird flu. It's the poorest country in Africa, possibly the poorest in the world. Nearly 20 percent of the population suffers from malnutrition, leaving it vulnerable to infection.

If the H5N1 form of the virus mutates into a pathogen that can be transmitted person to person, it might well happen in the petri dish of sub-Saharan Africa.

"In these countries, the risk of a pandemic virus emerging is much higher than it is in Western Europe," virologist Albert Osterhaus said.

Chickens Like a Savings Account

In rural Niger, bird flu is still a panic, not a plague. Not a single human is known to have contracted the disease in Africa. But the society is already having a tough time dealing with the threat.

Niger's economy is 98 percent agricultural, so birds are incredibly important. For rural families, chickens are the closest thing to a savings account.

"When a family member gets sick, we sell a chicken to buy some medicine," said villager Adam Bouku, who has 16 chickens and 16 family members all living under the same roof.

The problem is his savings account has suddenly lost most of its value. No one is eating chicken anymore. And if the birds become sick, they could well be a liability for his family.

Niger's government lacks the infrastructure necessary to mount the most basic defense. The head of the country's Food Security Agency Saidu Bakiri seems to be doing his best to protect Niger's food supply. But he has a staff of six people for a country that's twice the size of Texas.

Border guards are supposed to stop any poultry or eggs from coming in from neighboring Nigeria, where bird flu has now been confirmed on at least 40 poultry farms.

But the border post we visited was little more than a rope line across the road. The border guards claimed they were vigilant.

"We're keeping an eye out," one said. "We know if they are trying to get it across."

But in the time we spent at the border the customs officials did not inspect a single car -- and it's hard to blame them. They don't even have rubber gloves to protect themselves.

Virus Approaching, Villagers Resigned

In the absence of an effective government response, relief workers do their best to pick up the slack. We visited a food distribution site run jointly by the World Food Program and Helen Keller International -- both were packed.

Nearly 400 hungry mothers and their children, all dressed in the neon colors preferred by rural villagers, waited patiently for food.

The woman in charge, Abdul Azziz Hassia, gave them each a primer on "la grippe avian," as bird flu is known in this former French colony.

"Cook your chicken all the way through," she told them. "Well done is best."

The advice was purely academic for many of these women. Most could not afford chicken to eat anyway.

As bird flu spreads, the number of relief workers is likely to dwindle. Cathy Day, a young volunteer coordinator for the Peace Corps told us they're likely to pull out -- at least temporarily -- if bird flu breaks out within 6 miles of where Peace Corps volunteers are stationed. Washington is not eager to put young Americans at risk.

The remote village of Jamme, near the Nigerian border, is about 7 miles away from the nearest Peace Corps worker. That's where the latest suspected outbreak occurred.

The test results are not back yet, but local officials are pretty sure it's avian flu. Four hundred chickens died in the village. The local tribal chief ordered all the birds rounded up, and the villagers burned them and buried the bodies.

So far, the villagers seem to be healthy -- no one has shown symptoms of the disease.

But Safia Musa lost 50 birds. Asked what that loss means for her and her family, she put on a brave face and smiled brightly.

"It means if anyone drops something on the ground, the birds are not there to pick it up anymore," she joked.

The government has not offered Musa compensation for her loss. Niger is already so deeply in debt, it can scarcely afford to do so.

The people of Niger approach the possibility of bird flu with an air of resignation. At the bustling market in Niger's capital, Niamey, where bird flu hasn't reached yet, a group of young poultry salesmen tried in vain to interest people in their wares.

No one was buying, though. "All we can do is pray," they said.

Then they did just that. A group of them turned their eyes to God, praying that he would spare them.