Laurie Garrett errs re migratory birds and flu

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    Martin W

      Another email from Nial Moores, responding to interview with Laurie Garrett (“the only reporter to win all three of [US] journalism’s big “P” awards (the Peabody, the Polk and the Pulitzer)”) on E magazine site.
      Interview mainly re US preparedness (or lack of) for flu pandemic, but has a very wrong paragraph re migratory birds and flu origin/spread:
      Laurie Garrett: Are We Prepared for Avian Flu?

      Dear Editors of “E – The Environmental Magazine”,

      Greetings from South Korea.

      I have just had a quick read of your interview with Laurie Garrett, the person described by your magazine as being extraordinarily well-positioned to talk about avian influenza. I would not dare for a moment to doubt her journalistic credentials, or her knowledge of disease. However, it is clear, as someone who is deeply and actively involved in the conservation of East Asian migratory birds(especially waterbirds), that Laurie Garrett neither knows much about birds, migration or bird flyways in Asia – and most disappointing, nor did she make the necessary efforts to learn about them.

      The introduction (repeated in her interview) includes this would-be-amusing-description-in-another-context paragraph:
      “The virus is normally carried by aquatic migratory birds, including ducks and geese, that transverse the Asian Flyway, extending from southern Indonesia all the way up into the Arctic Circle of Siberia. The largest landmass on this migratory route is China, which has really devastated its natural ecology. So the birds are unable to find many pristine natural places to land as they make their migration every year. They’re landing on farms and getting into fights with domestic animals over food and water. “

      For the record:

      1) Although “aquatic migratory birds”, usually called migratory waterbirds, do migrate along Flyways, the Flyway that extends from Indonesia through China up to the Arctic Circle of Siberia is called the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, not the “Asian Flyway”.

      2) Although ducks and geese do use the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, only one northern-breeding species of duck occurs in Indonesia at all regularly, albeit scarcely. The vast majority of duck species and individuals do not migrate as far south. Indeed, in survey data contained in the Asian Waterbird Census, for the years 1999-2001 (in a report published by Wetlands International in 2004 and edited by David Li and Dr. Taej Mundkur), ZERO northern ducks were recorded in surveys of 67 Indonesian wetlands. In addition, ZERO northern geese occur naturally in Indonesia. So why the clear suggestion that ducks and geese migrate from Siberia to sourthern Indonesia?

      3) The flyway actually extends through eastern Asia to New Zealand and Australia in the south and Alaska to the north. However, neither New Zealand, Australia nor Alaska were included in the description of the Flyway by Ms Garrett. Is this because, as far as I am aware, there have not yet been any outbreaks of H5N1 “poultry flu” in those countries? In the same vein, why the mention of Indonesia, unless to insinuate the outbreaks there were being caused by migratory birds?

      4) Not all species of waterbird need pristine wetlands: many are adapted to modified landscapes, some are not. The idea that widespread habitat loss, which has likely led to very major declines in populations of some species, leads to “fights” between waterbirds and domestic animals is, well, comical. Being objective, I would not attempt at all to claim that some waterbirds do not use farm ponds, and that some other species take grain etc (they clearly do; some species even depend on it in some areas) — but this seems very different from an unnecessarily overdramatic description, perhaps further fuelling peoples’ deeper fears, conjuring up some distorted image along the unimaginable lines of “rabid ducks attack cows” …very Hitchcock.

      Why should I take the time to point all of this out? Why the need to?

      Within the past few weeks, as poultry flu caused by H5N1 continues to spread and as the Unites States and Europe begin to feel threatened by it, an increasing number of national and international media are simply and irresponsibly insinuating or stating that wild birds are not only the victims of this disease, but also the vector. An increasing number of people are calling for culls of wild birds. Misreporting will lead to the increased risk of culls, and will also mean that resources that could be used to fight the outbreaks – by better regulating the poultry industy – are wasted.

      It is clear that the disease is spreading. It is clear that various strains of this virus can be found in wild waterbirds. It is clear that in some cases wild birds are killed by it. What is not clear and what has not been proven is that migratory waterbirds are actually spreading it.

      On the other hand, as most of the rest of her interview suggests, there is abundance evidence linking the disease to poultry. The vast majority of infected chickens are in areas where there are no waterbirds to ” fight with”, and the disease has broken out most extensively in countries which have very poor standards of hygiene in the poultry industry, and few enforced restrictions on the caged bird trade. In addition, the disease outbreaks, as far as I am aware, do not match the timing of bird migrations into affected areas.

      This is all very important circumstantial evidence. And it is omitted from the article.

      Another blinding omission is that most species that migrate to northern Siberia along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway actually mix there with other species or other populations of the same species of waterbird from different flyways – flyways that are used by small numbers of individuals that “switch” flyways, and by many more individuals with different migration strategies taking them into other regions. There are so very many examples. One is the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper that winters in Australia and to a much lesser extent southern SE Asia; migrates through China and Korea into Siberia; breeds; then migrates across to Alaska, before migrating back down to Australia. Greater White-fronted Geese that winter in China, Korea and Japan breed on the Siberian Arctic Tundra, where they nest in areas with small numbers of nesting Lesser Snow Goose, that then migrate down through Alaska into California; Sanderlings from Southern Australia migrating to the Arctic where they likely meet individuals that will migrate south to Europe …these examples, well-known to most ornithologists of the region, are just a few picked at randon from a very long list.

      Why did the article not ask: If this disease is being carried by wild migratory birds along the Flyway in Asia, then why does it still remain confined to Asia?

      Considering all of this, it is clear that the major reservoir for the disease is the huge number of poultry (far, far outnumbering waterbirds anyway with an estimated 70 billion reared annually in Asia alone!); and the spread of the disease is surely rather more likely to be through the movement of poultry and caged bird trade within Asia, than through spread by wild birds that know no borders.

      I would urge your magazine, as a magazine focussing on environmental issues, to correct this dangerous imbalance in the article. I would respectfully urge you to stop the spread of fear of winged “ballistic missiles”, to focus on the inhumane and unhygenic practices of the poultry industry, and to help stop the spread of the disease through providing fact and not fiction.


      Nial Moores

      Director, Birds Korea

      Nial Moores
      Birds Korea: The national and international network dedicated to the conservation
      of birds and their habitats.


      Martin W

        The article’s paragraph re migratory birds and flu is altogether curious:

        Avian influenza comes from aquatic birds, including migratory ducks, geese and herons. As Garrett explains, the loss of these birds’ migratory routes in China has brought them into direct contact with humans in farms and parks. In this way, influenza is spread from migrating birds to domestic birds, then to pigs and ultimately to humans.

        Birds haven’t lost their migratory routes; humans have moved into migration routes – and done so worldwide.
        Farms and parks are, in evolutionary terms, new habitats, which many bird species live in (some becoming farmland specialists, say).
        As Garrett will know if she’s visited China, it’s darn hard finding birds in much Chinese farmland – agriculture is so intensive that there’s near zero slightly wild land left [not even hedgerows, rough grass patches etc as still fairly common in, say, UK]).
        Further, city parks are usually very quiet – and not places for many waterbirds (Beijing Summer Palace, if you can call it a park, is one of few exceptions I can think of – good for ducks).

        Worldwide, humans have long been in direct contact with birds – hunting them, and with some like chickens and ducks farmed.

        Since 97, notions that need transmission via pigs to humans has been shown to be false: this h5n1 variant can transmit directly from poultry to humans (which is mentioned in the interview).

        This paragraph is part of the preamble for the interview – so I wonder if it was the interview writer, not Garrett, erring here. (Though it starts by saying, “As Garrett explains…)

        In the interview, Garrett does say:

        Even now there’s not a real smooth operating relationship between the World Health Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. So those agencies in the UN system that deal with animals and agriculture are not as neatly plugged onto the World Health Organization, and vice versa, as one would hope. And the same is true here in the U.S. institutionally. Our U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services are not exactly good bedfellows.

        Agencies that traditionally deal with agriculture tend to have as their mission statement the defense of the agricultural industry. So they’re very tied into the economic side of agriculture, whereas health agencies tend to view that with suspicion, and to be tied into a whole different kind of economy. So it creates a kind of natural tension between these forces, and it filters all the way down to the average doctor, the average veterinarian, the average wildlife scientist or ecologist. So the bridges haven’t been built at the institutional level or at the personal level.

        – defence of agricultural industry; indeed, and it’s this that I think is helping cause bias towards blaming wild birds, not the real villain of the piece, farming.

        Post edited by: martin, at: 2005/08/13 05:48

        Martin W

          Oh dear.
          Yonks ago, I posted info to Ms Garrett’s forum, re wild birds and h5n1, but seems that she’s yet to grasp the issue, instead remaining a stalwart believer in the Tooth Fairy Bird.

          I note this after seeing she’s lately had this appear on Promed:

          As the number of reported H5N1 outbreaks in Asia mounts, I am trying to
          reckon trends for this spring. Given the profound El Nino Southern
          Oscillation (ENSO) effect this year [2007] on Europe and North America, I
          am wondering what is known about aquatic Asian bird migrations and ENSO. A
          cursory database check finds confusion. Warmer temperatures seem to
          decrease some European migrations. But the increased rainfall induced by
          ENSO in the Pacific seems to increase bird breeding and migration as a
          result of increased tree budding, nut formation, and insect populations.

          Does anybody have a clear sense of how periodic global climate oscillations
          effect the migratory patterns of aquatic bird species? For example, are
          birds that frequent the Asia flyways to Siberia more or less likely to jump
          the Bering to Alaska? Are birds in the Atlantic flyway more or less likely
          to migrate from Greenland to northern Canada?

          Laurie Garrett
          Senior Fellow for Global Health
          Council on Foreign Relations
          NY, NY 10021

          I have emailed Laurie Garrett with some info:

          Hi Laurie:

          I think you’ll find the Tooth Fairy Bird is very variable in its migration paths.

          Doesn’t really fluctuate with climate; instead, it migrates to and from places where H5N1 is found, and officials are unwilling to admit real causes.

          As concerns real birds: well, first let’s see if any actual species has been shown capable of surviving and sustaining and spreading H5N1.

          … how are you doing on answering this one?


          err, thought so.

          So, you are indeed interested in movements of the Tooth Fairy Bird.
          Good luck.

          Best regards,
          Dr Martin Williams

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