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Wild Birds and avian 'flu
The 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 winter?

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:

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 thoroughly disinfected
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 be almost silent about this now could cause massive problems for bird conservation for years to come.

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.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Nial Moores and
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