Voodoo priests may catch bird flu

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Priests who tear out the throats of live chickens in ritual sacrifices to voodoo gods may risk contracting bird flu now the deadly virus has reached Africa.

Voodoo priests in Benin, which borders Nigeria where an outbreak of the deadly H5N1 virus was found in poultry last week, sacrifice animals to invoke blessings or favours from the 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 to 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,” says Guillaume Hounsou-ve, director of livestock at Benin’s agriculture ministry.

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

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Priests commonly kill birds by ripping their throats out with their teeth or using a knife to cut their heads off.

Both methods 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’,” says Hounsou-ve, referring to the houses used for voodoo rituals.

A common practice

An estimated 60% 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 took their voodoo beliefs with them to the New World, notably Haiti, where rites and traditions from different parts of Africa met and evolved.

Voodoo 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.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
Reuters, via the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, UK
Feb. 15, 2006

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This post was last updated: Monday, November 30, -0001 at 12:00 AM, Central European Time (CET)