Voodoo priests at risk as bird flu hits Africa

Cotonou, Benin, - Priests who tear out the throats of live chickens in ritual sacrifices to Voodoo gods may risk contracting bird flu after the deadly virus reached Africa.

Voodoo priests in Benin, which borders with Nigeria where an outbreak of the deadly H5N1 virus was found in poultry last week, sacrifice animals to invoke blessings or favours from various gods.

Officials in the tiny West African country which is the home of the ancient religion say spreading the word about bird flu may help save the lives of Voodoo devotees.

"We have identified the groups at risk, including fetishists and followers of the Voodoo cult who sometimes kill animals with their teeth," Guillaume Hounsou-ve, director of livestock at Benin's Agriculture Ministry, told Reuters in an interview.

Sheep, goats and other animals are sometimes used for sacrifice, but the favourite offering is a chicken.

Priests commonly kill birds by ripping their throats out with their teeth or using a knife to cut their heads off, both of which would bring them into contact with chicken blood, one of the ways bird flu is thought to be spread to humans.

The disease has killed more than 90 people in Asia and Turkey since 2003.

Hounsou-ve and other senior officials in Benin have spent the past few days drafting an action plan to counter bird flu.

"We will target our messages, above all in regions where there are "convents" said Hounsou-ve, referring to the houses used for Voodoo rituals.

An estimated 60 percent of Benin's 7 million people practise Voodoo, although many also follow other religions like Christianity or Islam.

Voodoo "convents" are found across Benin but more commonly in southern areas near the Atlantic seaboard.

Once known as the Slave Coast, many thousands of Africans were shipped from here by European traders during more than three centuries of slave trading, many taking their Voodoo beliefs with them to the New World, notably Haiti where rites and traditions from different parts of Africa met and evolved.

Voodoo as practiced in West Africa and the Caribbean encompasses a wide range of rituals, from sacrificing animals to dancing, in which devotees fall into trances said to be a form of possession by gods.