Researchers and health agencies continue to sound the alarm about avian flu, and Dr. Gary Butcher, an expert on poultry medicine and disease at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine thinks he knows why.

“The agenda here is pretty obvious,” he said. “People want grant money. This is a bonanza.”

Butcher, who advises agricultural ministries and poultry companies around the world, is Florida’s lone poultry veterinarian. He has also emerged as a leading naysayer on the prospects for a avian flu pandemic.

Butcher insists the likelihood that the H5N1 avian flu virus in Asia will trigger a pandemic is practically nil. But the fear-mongering will continue, he said, as long as people see a potential for financial and career gain in it.

“This is a full-on war against agriculture,” Butcher said – and he is firing back.

“The threat is basically zero,” he said. “We’re spending all of our attention on this [virus], and another one may sneak up on us.”

The WHO’s Web site also warns that the H5N1 avian flu has killed half of the people it has infected. That’s true, Butcher said, but given the fact that the virus has only infected roughly 130 people, that 50 percent statistic paints a misleading picture. [note: this is of people known to have been infected; cf ideas many infected without much illness]

“The guy who wrote this really wants to make this sound like a big thing,” Butcher said, reading through the WHO’s “frequently asked questions” about avian flu.

“Dr. Butcher is certainly entitled to his opinion,” WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng said in an e-mailed response. “We clearly do not share it.”

The veterinarian reserved some of his harshest criticism for the USDA, which he believes is overstating the threat to justify its intensifying bird surveillance programs and gain funding and influence.

“They’re trying to keep [avian flu] in the spotlight,” he said.

“Everyone’s keeping it in the spotlight,” said Madelaine Fletcher, spokeswoman for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service division of the USDA.

Butcher’s perspective is not only that of an academic expert, but that of an industry consultant. When he is not teaching and researching in Gainesville, Butcher often travels to Panama, Russia, Ecuador, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries, advising governments and poultry companies whose survival and profits are threatened by public fears of bird flu.

In his travels, he said, he sees the evidence of serious economic harm caused by misplaced fear. “Poultry consumption is down 50 percent in Europe,” he said. “It’s a disaster.”

But Butcher remains troubled. “I don’t think people understand the effect its had on economies, industries and even the mental health of people around the world,” he said. “It’s prudent to be prepared, but it’s not prudent to inspire this overreaction.”

Ruffled feathers
UF professor says bird flu is not a threat in the U.S.