The deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu was confirmed Monday in birds in a third African country, deepening experts' fears that the disease may be far more widespread than reported on the continent.
Poor veterinary services, a shortage of laboratories, farmers' lack of knowledge and their fear that they will not be compensated if they report sick birds could be masking the extent of H5N1's spread in Africa, according to experts gathered in Paris.
Ilaria Capua, chief of the Italian laboratory that identified H5N1 in domestic ducks in Niger, said she fears the new cases are "just the prelude to the virus becoming endemic in Africa."
Other experts at the conference agreed that H5N1's spread in Africa is worrisome, as is the likelihood that its confirmed presence in Niger, its southern neighbor Nigeria and in Egypt are but the tip of the problem.
"We have to understand that all of Africa is infected," said Nikolai Vlasov, deputy chief of Russia's veterinary service.
Scientists fear that H5N1 avian influenza could mutate into a form easily transmitted among humans. Almost all human deaths from bird flu have been linked to contact with infected birds. The U.N. health agency on Monday raised its tally of confirmed human cases by three to 173; 93 were fatal.