email from Nial Moores to Henry Niman

Here's an email that Nial Moores of Birds Korea sent Henry Niman, re Niman's fast and loose comments and conclusions re h5n1 and wild birds. Though Niman continues his prodigious posting elsewhere, as yet, no reply to this.

Dr. Niman, I had intended writing you a week or more ago. As someone without medical training but with 15 years of experience in the region studying birds and their migrations, the hope was that we might somehow be able to combine our knowledge of migratory birds in this region here with your background and network. Through doing so, I hoped, we might then be able to develop some deeper understanding of these H5N1 outbreaks; the threats they raise; and perhaps even be able to assist people to come to sensible conclusions on how to reduce the possibility of future outbreaks.

However, I have just been copied, along with other people, into the response you made to one of Asia's most published and respected waterbird specialists. It seems clear to me, if not to others, that for some unknown reason you are presently impervious to information that seems to contradict your personal and obviously deeply-held opinion that these disease outbreaks are (all?) due to the migrations of birds.

I therefore am writing this open mail to you as an individual, copied to a few others, assuming complete responsiblity for the statements that I make within it. In your mail you claim that: "What is clear however, is that H5N1 is being transmitted in Asia and Europe by migratory birds and arguments against this notion merely reduces credibility of those making the argument." As a specialist in migrant birds in East Asia, therefore, I must reveal yet again my awful ignorance to you by asking, simply, where is your evidence? Please, not your opinion or feeling or view (which we already know), but your evidence?

Please say clearly which species are involved, and explain how species like Bar-headed Geese, which are largely flightless in July, are spreading the outbreaks north, west and east of their range from country to country, household to household, in that same month? Please explain why testing of H5N1 in migrant shorebirds at either end of the East Asian-Australasian flyway (in NZ and in Alaska earlier this month) are apparently proving birds are not infected; why similar tests are proving negative in Japan; why the Thai government moved away from considering wild bird culling, to instead focussing control efforts on poultry? And why we are still hearing of outbreaks in Indonesia? As a migrant bird specialist, I am not claiming that wild birds are not possibly involved in spreading the disease in some cases. Personally, and in common with several other ornithologists, what I am saying is that there is as yet no such evidence for such a role. It appears that we simply do not know. We do know, however, that trade in poultry has been implicated in past outbreaks, even when at those times too, wild birds were first identified as likely vectors.

As a person of science, would you not accept that it would be extraordinarily irresponsible for a person who claims to be some expert on this disease to make bold, unsupported claims? Surely, a scientist of value would weigh up all available evidence, not just selectively (and apparently assuming pride in their ignorance)?

Would you not also agree that we need to cut out nonsense and misinformation, so that best responses/decisions can be made by decision-makers, based on facts? I repeat, I am no expert on H5N1, nor do I pretend to be. I can see, however, from a review of HPAI outbreaks included in Alexander (in Veterinary Microbiology, 74 (2000) 3-13) that H5N1 was first listed therein in turkeys in England as long ago as 1950; I can understand from other sources, such as Lancet, May 2004, that more recent outbreaks of the virus were stamped out locally in Hong Kong by a cull of poultry, and that all humans who had been infected there had been shown to have some contact with (infected) poultry; I can understand that the disease persisted in areas of China after that cull, unreported, only showing up in poultry being imported into Hong Kong subsequently; that several outbreaks of a wide range of poultry and animal diseases are occurring in this and other regions; and also, here is my specialty, that migrant birds simply do not migrate in the way that you are describing. Are you not interested to hear details about this? To learn information from experts that could improve your understanding, and the understanding of those who you are trying to inform?

I can only find one reference to an outbreak of HPAI in wild birds prior to the outbreaks this summer - that in terns in South Africa in 1961. I quote the following from Alexander (2000): "¡°HPAI viruses have been isolated rarely from feral birds, and [apart from a tern in Africa in 1961] when they have, it has usually been in the vicinity of outbreaks of HPAI in poultry, or geographically and chronologically close to known outbreaks in poultry.¡± In the case of the Russian outbreaks, your own commentary on August 2 included this revealing (slightly edited) mechanical translation: ¡°Let us note, in the suburb of Tyumen' are located two large poultry-breeding complexes - Bohr poultry processing facility and "Tyumen' broiler". Volume of the production of Bohr poultry processing facility: 2 million eggs per day, 3 800 tons of fresh meat - yearly. Now in the enterprise more than 3.3 million poultry, including 2.3 million hens for egg production. The poultry processing facility meets the demand of West and East Siberia, and also part of the Urals and central Russia¡¦The "Tyumen' broiler" supplies its production into the northern part of the region¡¦.¡±

So that my credibility is not damaged further, I would appreciate hearing a logical response from you, based on documented evidence, as to how any of the above suggests that wild birds are the main cause of these outbreaks even now? And also why the disease outbreaks would not spread "north and west and east", as the outbreaks have been doing, if poultry in Tyumen had become infected? I remain puzzled and troubled that even EVEN WITHIN the links you provide in your recent mail the conclusion you are claiming to be so obvious ( disease is 'transmitted by wild birds') seems not to be written anywhere that I can see. You include this URL in supporty of your opinion:

Opening the URL, I see that the information on Mongolia that you are using to support your opinion, dated as reported on August 17th, only states instead, "Analysis of samples is still in progress".

Could you please point out the sentences in which the firm conclusion that wild birds are responsible for the spread there and other places is actually written/proven? Or indeed where are the migratory waterfowl in Europe that have tested positive you also refer to? The governments of Europe surely need to be alerted to this, if this is information you have. Or on what reliable information you can make what appears to me to be a not-so-subtle racist observation, that testing in India for H5N1 is "suspect"?

Are you not aware of the generally high-level of research and science in India? And additionally, the absence of outbreaks of HPAI in India in wild birds? There are several patterns becoming increasingly apparent through this summer. One is that the pattern of disease outbreaks simply does not match the pattern of migration of any bird species, species group, or combination of species that we can think of here. (If a pattern starts to emerge, we will highlight that on our website honestly, and in mails to our members; we will mail you too if you so request?).

A second, perhaps less significant, pattern is that the same links you provide, and the information available elsewhere, reveals the fairly obvious: that there are also other disease outbreaks in poultry and farm animals in different and even in the same "remote" countries - Mongolia has its own new Foot and Mouth disease outbreak for example, despite months with no such outbreak.

Are you also claiming (with confidence or otherwise?) that such outbreaks are also somehow carried by wild birds, or perhaps in this case by herds of wild mammals? Such outbreaks for me at least do nothing more than to suggest that (a) diseases are widespread within poultry and domestic animals within this and other regions, even though they sometimes go undetected for a period of time; and (b) that considering the nature of some such diseases, movement of either infected animals, and/or of people between farms, would help to spread the disease. As someone who has personally seen bird markets in China and Viet Nam, who has watched open, dirty crates of chickens transported along the major expressways here in Korea pre- and post-HPAI outbreak, I have no doubt that there is alot of movement of poultry within countries of the region, and within the region as a whole. A third pattern is one even more circumstantial.

It seems significant to note that the information of those suggesting that movement of poultry might well be the main cause of spread, tends to be provided by people who are knowledgeable about wild birds, or at least open to such information; that information provided by such sources tends to avoid both unneccessarily dramatic language and wild predictions; and that it tends to be coming from people within the region who will not profit in any way from these outbreaks.

In contrast, up to now at least, it appears that the more inaccurate leaps in argument seem rather more typical of those living outside of the region (three obvious examples this month: yourself with your sometimes frankly rather bizarre commentaries, a reporter in the Wall Street Journal on Aug 8th who wrote of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and more surprisingly, Laurie Jarrett in an interview with an environmental magazine who talked of fights between migrant birds and domestic animals -- all three based outside of Asia).

Clearly, you do not know much about birds of the region Dr. Niman, or their migrations; and you seem to be okay about making definitive statements and fairly gross speculations on both migrations and on disease outbreaks that to me and other experts in this field really seem unsupported by the facts. It is surely beyond my interest or concern to suggest why people like yourself seem so insistent and patronising, even when mailed respectfully and rationally by one or more of the most well-respected ornithologists in the region.

But for the sake of truth and science, people and birds, I do believe that you should feel obligated to provide much more accurate information - rather than wild opinion - in your future commentaries. Clearly without respect, Nial Moores Birds Korea Nial Moores Birds Korea: The national and international network dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats. http://www.birdskorea.org

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