Martin W

    Had a bit of correspondence lately with Canadian medical reporter Helen Branswell – some time ago she interviewed me for story on wild birds and H5N1; more recently written of "avian equivalent of the stealth bomber" spreading H5N1 west from China. (A belief, then, in the Tooth Fairy Bird.)

    Followed my sending her short email re Grain report on farming and H5N1; she replied saying thought it odd some conservationists still denying some role in the spread.

    Here’s email I sent:

    some birds playing some role, that they are one possible route of introduction of the virus to a new area" – I have not seen any ornithologists/conservationists dispute this. So far, remains only possible route, and all the attention on wild birds is excessive, and leading to problems – latest is region in Russia, about to shoot birds (near poultry farms?) said a news item a couple of days ago.

    Major conservation implications. Wild birds themselves have no voice, so people like me get active on their account – extremely unfair wild birds getting so much wrong blame for the poultry industry’s wrongs. see Grain report. Instead of wild birds, should be major questioning of FAO, and industrial farming.

    But, FAO v loud – especially Domenech. And somehow media seems to love idea of wild birds carrying a disease that could kill us all. Beats Hitchcock, so to editors and some sensationalist writers (step forward Laurie Garrett), what’s not to like about that? A good story, so who cares about the details. Not sure if you do: I wrote such shorthand in previous email so as not to bombard you.

    It is not scientific to just say "it must be stealth bomber birds". Not scientific at all.

    We see vast exaggeration of wild birds as carriers, based on little more than supposition – and overlooking or ignoring the problems inherent in poultry industry: after all, without poultry industry, we would not have this virulent H5N1, nor a slew of other HPAIs in recent years.

    "The AI scientists" – not all AI scientists. Karesh, assuming you mean Williams Karesh, not an AI scientist that I know of; tho done important work in field when need arose last summer. Work by him and his team among strong evidence "the disease is self-limiting in wild birds".

    Curious your list appears to be all US people. Has Swayne, say, even worked in Asia? cf vet Les Sims, extensive experience in Asia, believes wild birds play only minor role in spread What of Guan Yi: no "expert" on AI, inc with his team’s pioneering research on virus in HK/China? Quoted saying wild birds scapegoats. Ken Shortridge, worked with Guan and co before, co-authored paper in Lancet, showing wild birds not key vectors for 2003/04.

    Why do you not think when discussing H5N1 and wild birds that it’s not important to consider views views of ornithologists with some or detailed knowledge of migratory species, timings, routes etc? – when examine various cases n some detail, the story re wild birds as spreaders becomes weak or highly improbable. Niman manages this ignorance; but hardly science. "it doesn’t kill some duck specie" – not true. Situation is more complex than this.

    All I’ve seen: some strains highly lethal to ducks (check out species list on USGS website), some strains may kill small percentages. Less lethal strains were excreted in low amounts – so how are ducks going to transmit them? Sneezing and French kissing? Does seem domestic ducks in Thai rice fields play important role in sustaining H5N1 there. But in the wild?

    One case with science: swans in Romania excreted little; birds sharing ponds with them not infected. Six apparently healthy wild ducks at a lake in e China had H5N1. But virus did not move in direction birds migrate from Poyang. Same paper: H5N1 has evolved distinct regional strains in China, Vietnam: major scientific evidence against wild birds being major carriers, yet overlooked. As yet, no cases of wild bird transmission to H5N1 known. Doesn’t mean that hasn’t happened – it’s hard to say for sure just what caused several outbreaks – but none certain, yet wild birds readily blamed. French turkeys had no contact with wild birds, yet they got it.

    Again, wild birds a red herring for the most part: and by watching the skies for virus, when it arrives in other ways, could be just helping spread. I do believe wild birds – esp swans – flying around with H5N1; and dying of it in too many cases. Yes, sentinels; H5N1 is around. But where did they get infected? Looking like e Europe/Black Sea area for the most part. Might they even have been fed (dumped?) chicken feed? Contaminated feed thought to be behind at least one poultry outbreak in Russia. Mute swans tend to be tame, often residents. Looks like virus has been moved – by transport links – across Russia to Europe. Now infected wild birds, especially swans for some reason. Isn’t first time wild birds fingered.

    With H5N1 2003/04, "wild birds" so often blamed – which is when I got interested and active, seeing that evidence was to contrary. Earlier blamed for HPAIs in US, 83/84; Netherlands for H7N7; Australia also. In all cases, wild birds said to be or thought maybe vectors, yet evidence showed they weren’t. I write from Hong Kong, which is surely at the epicentre of H5N1 in poultry and even humans, just down the road from first location for H5N1 of Guangdong goose 96 lineage.

    Hong Kong lies on migration flyways; birds here from breeding grounds including northeast Asia, and Japan; some travel as far south as Australia, while many overwinter, including around 50,000 waterbirds in a relatively small wetland on northwest border w Shenzhen. Have been occasional cases of H5N1 in dead wild birds here. Extensive testing – 16,000 or more healthy birds tested at wetland, not one positive.

    So, H5N1 has indeed proved self-limiting in wild birds here; no evidence wild waterbirds migrating through Hong Kong are carrying it.

    Suppose you could visit this wetland, see all these birds in the heart of H5N1 territory, might you then have a slightly different viewpoint than from Canada?

    Alas, Helen Branswell not to be swayed, and maybe a tad grouchy on day my email arrived:

    Sadly, I believe my moment of epiphany is not near. The fine organization I work for has a limited travel budget, and somehow I think covering Canadian troops in Afghanistan is going to trump any proposal that I should trek through the marshes of Hong Kong so that I can fully appreciate how woefully I have maligned the birds of the world. In the interim, you may perhaps wish to read other writers. Good luck with your crusade.

    Too bad re sense of humour failure, repeated in a further email from Helen Branswell, with further dig re "crusades"; though at least her notion does suggest one possible Latin name for the Tooth Fairy Bird – Anas stealthbomberensis.