COTONOU Benin, the home of ritual Voodoo sacrifice, became the latest in a string of West African states to report cases of H5N1 bird flu after laboratory tests confirmed the deadly virus on two poultry farms.
Agriculture Minister Robert Dovonou said in a statement late on Sunday test results from a laboratory in Italy confirmed the H5N1 virus in cases discovered this month north of the capital Porto Novo and on a farm in the commercial capital Cotonou.
Benin's immediate neighbors, Nigeria, Togo, Niger and Burkina Faso, have all reported H5N1 cases. Other regional states hit include Ghana, Ivory Coast and Cameroon.
Eastern neighbor Nigeria is one of the regional nations worst affected by bird flu. It reported sub-Saharan Africa's first confirmed human death from the disease early this year.
Health experts have said they fear Benin's Voodoo priests could be particularly at risk because of their practice of tearing out the throats of live chickens in ritual sacrifices.
Voodoo "convents" are found across Benin and the ancient religion was also carried to the Caribbean, especially Haiti, by slaves shipped to the Americas by European captains and traders.
Benin first announced its suspected bird flu cases on December 7. Health Ministry officials said several hundred birds were slaughtered as a precautionary measure in a 5-km (3-mile) radius around the two separate locations. All farms in a 15-km (3-mile) radius were also disinfected.
The import of poultry into the former French colony on the Gulf of Guinea was banned and restrictions were imposed on the movement of birds between farms.
"The tests carried out on samples sent last week to Italy have shown positive ... The two suspect locations are indeed infected by the group A and type H5N1 flu virus," Dovonou said.
H5N1 bird flu has killed more than 200 people around the world, mainly in Asia, since the disease re-emerged in Hong Kong in 2003, according to the World Health Organization.
So far, most human cases can be traced to direct or indirect contact with infected birds and hundreds of millions of birds have died or been culled.
Outbreaks in Africa have raised alarm bells because epidemiologists fear the continent's widespread poverty, lack of proper veterinary and medical facilities and huge informal farming sector could allow outbreaks to go unnoticed for longer, increasing the risk of the virus mutating.
(Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Timothy Heritage)