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4 November 2005 at 1:24 pm #3261Martin WParticipant
Hong Kong legislator – who represents the catering industry – has suggested wild birds, not poultry, are responsible for bird flu troubles; and maybe answer would be to give everyone a gun to shoot wild birds.
This crazy notion even made Pravda: Hong Kong residents to be given guns to shoot birds suspected of carrying flu
Well, I figured a response was needed; here’s a letter I wrote, just published (slightly trimmed) in the South China Morning Post:
In one of the more crass utterances by a Hong Kong legislator, Mr Tommy Cheung has suggested that to make Hong Kong safer from H5N1, Hongkongers be given guns to shoot wild birds. Well, Mr Cheung might be interested to note that if a wild bird has H5N1 there is no need for a gun: the disease in wild birds is highly lethal anyway.
Mr Cheung made the curious assertion that H5N1 outbreaks are caused not by poultry, but by migratory birds. This suggests he has gleaned only a very superficial knowledge of the disease. Otherwise, Mr Cheung would appreciate H5N1 – as typical of highly pathogenic bird flu strains – is a product of poultry farms. Previously unknown in wild birds, it evolved in poultry farms, becoming highly efficient at transmitting between and even killing birds (but, thankfully, not humans).
There are indeed many strains of wild bird flus known; but all cause few or no apparent symptoms in wild birds. As Mr Cheung would appreciate had he cared to assess the scientific evidence, this mildness can be explained by sound evolutionary principles, which might be summarised as Dead Ducks Don’t Fly.
With no apparently healthy wild birds testing positive for H5N1, despite extensive testing including over 7000 birds in Hong Kong this year, it is indeed the poultry industry that is responsible for sustaining this disease, and the key means of spread is through bird trade, both legal and illegal.
Mr Cheung is not alone in adopting a superficial approach to bird flu. Indeed, Hong Kong was perhaps the first place to make wild birds an easy scapegoat for bird flu spread; this despite the evidence being to the contrary. Elsewhere, too, blame wild birds first, maybe ask questions later, seems a typical approach. It happened in Russia – where in the past few days, Moscow’s chief vet has suggested has attributed bird flu spread to illegal poultry trade.
H5N1 indeed remains a threat to birds, especially poultry, and rarely to humams. But as wild birds are victims, not vectors, Hongkongers don’t need arming with Tommy guns.
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