Birds and avian 'flu
South Korean Ministry of Agriculture this week conducted press conferences
to use outbreaks of poultry flu in Europe to promote their conversion
of coastal wetland into rice-field in South Korea, most especially
with regard to the Saemangeum issue. Their simple argument apparently
runs: Wild birds are dangerous; loss of migratory bird habitat is
a good thing; lets get on with the Saemangeum reclamation. This, with
great irony, as their former argument was that conversion of intertidal
habitats into rice-field was actually creating the best migrant bird
habitats in Korea (Both arguments clearly erroneous, but unambiguous
evidence that the so-called debate is already extending beyond improved
biosecurity and culls of wild birds, long called-for in some Asian
countries, and has already reached calls for wetland loss).
I feel a little saddened therefore that from an Asian perspective
(where people have been trying to come to terms with H5N1 outbreaks
for several years now), that leading organisations elsewhere are still
not really taking the poultry and caged bird industry to task, instead
apparently defining this problem perhaps a little narrowly and passively
as one more about monitoring migratory birds and providing advice
on potential vector species. There is surely and absolutely the need
to remain open-minded and truthful and to be trustworthy through providing
such advice, but is it necessary also to already openly accept (on
very limited/no firm evidence) that, yes, indeed, wild birds are now
very likely spreading H5N1 into Europe?
It is clear that some wild birds are being infected and that they
die. It seems likely too that the earlier outbreaks in Mongolia (finally)
had no obvious poultry influence (suggesting this disease has the
potential to become even more of a direct conservation threat). But
what of all the other outbreaks (many tens over the years)? Why no
outbreaks now persisting in Mongolia? Why too are we now seeing apparently
only a one-way movement of outbreaks, NE-SW? Why are we not now getting
similar multiple new outbreaks here in Far East Asia if wild birds
are so simply responsible for the spread? Are these not good questions
in need of good answers?
Last week I was at Seosan in Korea: several hundred thousand wild
duck and geese, many of which would have come to Korea from or through
Mongolia (where wild birds were only 2 months ago suspected of carrying
the disease, spreading it everywhere they landed). No corpses. No
outbreaks in Korea in almost a million waterbirds now in from summer
time affected areas of China, Mongolia, Russia. Is it right - no new
outbreaks reported as yet also in wild birds either in China or (ever)
in Japan, which would likely receive the same "infected"
waterbird populations? No outbreak in wild birds at all to the east
of the summer outbreaks? Puzzlingly, testing of many thousands of
birds in this region still showing no antibodies, no evidence of H5N1...No
outbreaks far southward either in New Zealand or Australia? Why is
this? What does all of this tell us about the conditions required
by H5N1 to spread, to remain viable, to kill?
Is it because when wild birds become infected, they die?
Is it because the reservoir of the disease lies not in wild bird populations
(yet), but rather in poultry and caged birds?
If so, why do many bird conservationists seem to be so quick to accept
the line that wild birds are responsible for the latest outbreaks
e.g. in Romania (" Source of outbreak or origin of infection:
contact with wild birds."), especially when the outbreak was
apparently in backyard poultry? When the outbreaks are not matched
by new outbreaks in areas where most of Asia's ducks and geese actually
Since as long ago as 1997 disease experts have continued to repeat
that wild birds are responsible for spreading H5N1 in Asia, and now
in Europe. This is nothing new. At least until this summer, however,
there had been absolutely no evidence to support this view, and indeed
plenty of contrary information - which despite being outlined beautifully
in Lancet in 2004 (by David Melville and Shortridge), is still not
being picked up and pushed to media by the bird conservation community.
In short, previous outbreaks have been traceable back to the poultry
(and caged bird ) industry, and not wild birds. It would surely be
so useful if this kind of information was refered to frequently and
in detail in postings and updates (it is for example covered in our
lengthy and now slightly outdated account at: http://www.birdskorea.org/fluupdatesept05.asp).
In Europe this month, accounts by official sources state that only
last week movements of poultry were halted between some neighboring
countries in SE Europe (ie there was movement before that time)...If
the H5N1 virus was brought in by poultry from another country just
a couple of weeks back, could it not have spread from a new epi-centre,
through trade, local and national movements to give a pattern similar
to that which we have now? Could not a few wild birds then become
infected by coming into contact with wastewater or sick birds from
infected farms? Is this not a feasible scenario, more likely indeed
than spread by wild birds in one outbreak when e.g. only three dead
ducks (?) tested positive for the disease (so different from outbreaks
earlier in e.g. west China and later in Mongolia, where hundreds of
wild birds died and rapidly)?
In short, Why are these new cases in Europe not more likely further
examples of spread through bird trade?
By way of further explanation, and to follow one of Martin William's
earlier lines of thought, can I ask overly simplistically: How can
e.g. foot and mouth disease still spread easily in Mongolia, Russia
and parts of China as reported this summer on Pro-Med when all controls
there on domestic animals (including poultry incidentally) are said
to be properly in place? Is it not more logical to assume that such
controls are not working as well as they need to, rather than supposing
that migrating herds of mammals are still spreading that particular
disease (e.g in some cases by flying over border fences??)? Same way,
does anyone in the real world actually believe that all illegally
traded birds are stopped at all borders, or that even all legally-traded
birds are checked thoroughly at all stages of transport for signs
of disease (with tests conducted even on asymptomatic poultry)? Moreover,
that all trucks that might have carried infected poultry have been
before carrying new loads across borders?
Please consider: Thailand has been described by some media (e.g by
CNN after meetings involving Bush) as a leader in the fight against
H5N1. Has Thailand not also remained busy exporting poultry from so-called
unaffected areas and even been pushing to increase exports to e.g
Russia? Even when there are repeated outbreaks of H5N1 in some parts
of Thailand, including in previously so-called unaffected areas...
Even when there is still a significant trade in caged birds (and fighting
cocks) there... Even when poultry are being vaccinated in some areas,
and then put out to feed in rice-fields in others where (asymptomatic)
poultry could infect wild birds. If this is the way a leading nation
in the fight against H5N1 works, then what about other countries with
weaker economies, even weaker controls and poorer infrastructure?
Are these not the kinds of things that bird conservationists should
be rather more vocal about when discussing the spread of H5N1 with
media and decision-makers?
The poultry (and caged bird) trade has been responsible for the evolution
of the disease; it has been responsible for past outbreaks; and with
the caged bird trade it might well even now be responsible for the
spread of the disease into Europe...to be almost silent about this
now could cause massive problems for bird conservation for years to
In summary, H5N1 Poultry Flu is NOT a natural disease, it is in effect
man-made. The Poultry (and caged bird) industry have created the conditions
for its evolution; and only changes in the unnatural conditions in
which birds are kept (either as poultry or as caged birds) will likely
be able to prevent further multiple outbreaks and through them the
growth of H5N1 into something even more devastating.
with the kind permission of Nial Moores and birdskorea.org
pages: Geographical spread
of H5N1 , Dead
Ducks Don't Fly