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Singapore International 15 Oct 05
Is bird flu in Europe linked to migratory birds?
Melanie Yip, Perspective
Fears of the avian flu, H5N1 finding its way to Europe intensified when several cases of bird flu were reported in countries like Russia and Turkey. European health officials held an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss stepping up preventive measures to curb the further spread of bird flu within the continent. And the European community remained divided as to how the virus found its way into the continent.
While migratory birds were singled out as a possible source of the infection, other quarters have raised the issue of poultry farming being responsible for the spread of the bird flu.
Welcome to Perspective with me, Melanie Yip as we take a look at the issues surrounding bird flu in Europe.
News of the bird flu spreading to Europe has raised concern among governments and agriculturalists, who worry about the economic impact of this disease which requires the culling of millions of birds if it is found to spread from wild birds to domestic fowl.
But there is no evidence that migratory birds are the culprits, although the suspicion started when the first cases of bird flu found in wild birds were discovered.
Dr Taej Mundkur is from Wetlands International in India.
TM: There's been an outbreak of the H5N1, which is a strain of avian influenza or poultry flu in China. This resulted in the deaths of many wild birds, mainly five species like the bar-headed goose, two species of gulls, and a ruddy shelduck in a lake in China called "Qing Hai Hu". This was the first time in 30 years that wild birds were seen to have been affected and have died in large numbers as a result of avian influenza or bird flu. The problem is that domestic poultry like chickens, ducks and geese, bird flu is also quite a common problem and there are many strains that affect the poultry industry across the region. And in the last several years, there has been a need to kill or cull millions of poultry across South East Asia, China, also in Europe and America.
Andre Farrar from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the United Kingdom touches on another theory.
AF: And we know with the outbreak of the particular form of bird flu, this H5N1, a high and deadly form of bird flu that it has transferred from captive birds to wild birds, that's been proven in South East Asia. And obviously, there is the theory that if wild birds can be infected, they can move it around. The theoretical link comes from the knowledge that poultry can infect wild birds directly, but the reverse has not yet been proven.
Even by looking at the migratory routes of wild birds, there remain many questions which need to be answered, adds Dr Taej Mundkur from Wetlands International in India.
TM: Migratory birds fly from Northern Asia and China into South East Asia, and Austral-Asia. We do know that birds nesting in Central Asia, in parts of Siberia also migrate into South Asia and into Europe. So the Central Asian region of West Siberia, and eastwards to Northern Mongolia is an area that large numbers of birds nest, and are of many different species. And from there, they migrate to different parts of Europe, Africa, South Asia, and South East Asia. We need to know more about their migratory routes, and to understand which species may be more susceptible to such a virus. And thereafter, which of these species could be able to carry the virus, and if at all. And if they can carry it, whether they could spread it to other species or to poultry. So there are many more questions unanswered at this stage.
Mr Andre Farrar from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the UK agrees, saying that it is premature at this point to pin the blame on wild birds.
AF: At the moment, there is only co-relation of the bird of the disease with some migration routes. And even that is not perfect at all. So a lot of the misconceptions have been driven by the outbreak in China among the birds called the "bar headed goose", which is a migrant, and which was shown to contract the virus from poultry flocks locally, it did not bring it with them.
Dr Taej Mundkar raises other possible means in which bird flu could spread, including improper poultry farming.
TM: Some of the reasons include poor bio-security or bio-safety in poultry farms which means that the poultry birds infected in one farm can be transmitting the disease to other farms through the movement of live birds or of chicks, or by the faeces or the droppings of the chickens being carried from one poultry farm to another by the movement of people, and/or by transportation, vehicles used for transporting birds, food or water, or cages could carry the droppings of the infected birds. And therefore, they spread the disease from one poultry farm to another.
TM: When poultry is mixed in markets with other bird species, or wild bird species being caught legally or illegally for the pet trade, and this could be one mechanism for easily transmitting not just this disease, and many other diseases that birds or poultry get. In addition, it is well known that wild birds are just like other species of living creatures, and they do get infected with viruses, including the avian influenza virus, and that it is believed by some people that this could be the cause for the transmission of this disease in 2005. However, we have no proof yet of the ability of these birds to carry H5N1 and infect either birds of the same species, or poultry.
Dr Taej Mundkur from Wetlands International in India.
The key defense against infection, advises European health officials, is to keep domestic fowl out of contact with wild birds. Veterinary officials are considering requiring poultry to be kept indoors, in areas thought to be the most at risk of the spread of bird flu.
While Andre Farrar welcomes any forms of preventive measures, his advice is for people to make informed decisions.
AF: It is a big risk if all of the contingency planning is focused on one area, and some ill-judged comments in Europe and in the United Kingdom were giving the impression that migrant birds were inevitably going to bring this form of bird flu further eastwards, or westwards into Europe. Whilst this could not be substantiated, we also run the risk of the authorities not paying sufficient attention to movement of people who can carry the virus on contaminated clothing, of agricultural products, and of the illegal bird trade. There was a case of a bird being illegally smuggled into Belgium in Europe from Thailand, which was actually carrying the virus H5N1. So we already have an example of the virus arriving in Europe, fortunately, it was found and contained by a different route other than migration. So it is very risky if all the contingency planning put around potentially the wrong route.
Andre urges stiffer measures like halting the wild bird trade.
AF: We are calling for the trade in wild birds into Western Europe, or to the European Union to be stopped, as it is to the United States. That removes at a stroke one of the potential vectors of transferring the disease. On the agriculture side, we expect the levels of biological security, which prevents the movement of infected birds, to be efficiently administered because there is the front line of controlling the disease.
And at this stage, the respective European authorities have yet to call for the culling of wild birds, an action which could put endangered species at risk.
AF: Fortunately all the authorities were very clear that putting in place culling programs for wild birds would be completely ineffective, and worse, could make the situation more serious by causing birds to distribute themselves in a random way than a predictable way as migration does. So we have been fortunate not to counter calls for culls of wild birds. Looking at some of the species that are of concern, obviously restricted range birds, vulnerable birds, endangered birds that have got very small population could be of themselves at risk of contracting bird flu, and the population dying, so bar-headed geese, 10% of the world's population died of bird flu itself, and there are other birds which is the milky stork, for example, a vulnerable specie could be at risk of contracting the disease, and facing the risk of extinction. While we would not underplay the human risk of bird flu, the risk to some birds of conservation is also in our minds.
Mr Andre Farrar from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the United Kingdom. That ends Perspective this week. For Radio Singapore International, I'm Melanie Yip.
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