poultry causing h5n1 bird flu outbreaks in Russia?

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    Martin W

      an email from Nial Moores of Birds Korea, to Declan Butler, who’s writing about bird flu for Nature:

      Dear Declan,

      Thank you very much for your openness and responsiveness on this issue, revealed in your mail.

      I very much expect that you would already have been mailed by Dr. Martin Williams on this issue and on your article? If not I want to take the opportunity to suggest that it would be useful. Martin has invested a great deal of time in getting to understand the issue.

      Personally, I have no background in disease. I am a bird and wetland conservationist working In South Korea, with the group Birds Korea (www.birdskorea.org), specialising in field studies and conservation of migratory waterbirds.

      With this background, I would like to suggest that your article greatly underplays the illogic of northward migration of waterbirds from e.g. China into Russia in the summer.

      A recurrent theme of these outbreaks appears to be the way that they seem NOT to be matching the known and proven migrations of wild waterbirds (such data supported over periods of years by band and coloured flag sightings and even in some [unaffected] species by satellite tracking, as well as by repeated field observations).

      As in many of the previous outbreaks, if infected wild birds are the vectors, then the disease seems not only to kill them eventually, but first disorientates them and leads to huge irregularities in their otherwise highly predictable migration and breeding strategies. Highly illogical.

      If it has not been done already, it would be highly appropriate some time soon for Nature to please accurately and clearly review and map earlier outbreaks (locations, dates). And then to superimpose this data onto maps of proven migration routes and typical arrival and departure dates of migration of (implicated/infected) wild bird species. ( I am certain that numerous waterbird specialists, perhaps at Wetlands International?, would be pleased to provide data given the opportunity and a little advance notice.)

      If such patterns really match up well, then the present tone of your article with its obvious angle (“Migratory birds may have caused outbreaks in Russia and Kazakhstan”) can be adjudged to be appropriate: based on best evidence, wild birds really might be the vectors, may have caused the spread of the disease.

      However, if these patterns do not match (as they seem not to have done in so many previous outbreaks), then the balance of the discussion would far better be shifted further towards stressing that much greater emphasis needs to be put into discovering /analysing/restricting poultry movement/trade, and towards recommending the urgent enforcement of a number of much more logical and practical control mechanisms (higher level of hygiene in the poultry industry; greater controls on movement; greater separation of domestic and wild birds etc etc).
      A better title for your article might then be:
      “Disease outbreaks in Russia and Kazakhstan may be caused by poultry”

      Why is this all so important?

      As you know, this is potentially one of the biggest health and bird conservation issues of the coming year (s).

      The title of your article reveals fairly clearly a skew on what otherwise apparently purports to be a balanced, neutral view: it clearly links migratory birds and disease outbreaks.

      This comes on top of what has already been so much misinformation on this issue by other media. It is very easy to view your article right from the title therefore as yet another piece of evidence in the argument that wild birds are indeed the cause of spread — yet your article does not actually contain such evidence.

      Not only the title, the arrangement of your article does not allow much of a neutral take. You provide the comments of “an expert on cranes” (he is rather more than just that actually, despite his modest self-description ) who you quote as saying: ” it is unlikely that the disease has come to Russia from China, as birds do not usually fly in that direction at this time of year.”

      Compare this to the strong “But” that follows: “But Juan Lubroth, head of infectious diseases for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), says there is still cause for concern over migratory birds.”

      Unlikely, usually…But…is…cause…concern

      In times of doubt and fear, whose opinion sounds the most responsible and trustworthy? In an issue of disease, who would we all be most likely to listen to?
      There has been clearly much more of a tendency in various media and government departments to blame wild birds first (as evidenced by so many news items and reports — invariably suggesting wild birds must be the cause, really); and then to quote hard science later.

      In many cases, as in South Korea some months back, the follow-up scientific evidence gathered after an outbreak in some poultry farms did not support spread by wild birds…this however, was reported rather later, in much smaller print, after the big, bold headlines had already reinforced people’s already-existing take on things — “I , as a farmer/industralist/consumer, am not to blame. It is the wild birds.” The evidence is apparently not there, but the perception remains.

      An inadequate or subtly skewed treatment of this most serious and threatening of issues now by the most responsible media (such as Nature) will I believe really help contribute to an increased possibility of a pandemic outbreak and an increased possibility of wild bird culls – in a few species’ case, greatly increasing the possibility of extinction. Articles such as these will be refered to in defence of culls of wild birds — better surely to be safe than sorry people will say – when actually limited resources would be much better directed NOW at the real source and reservoir of this disease: domestic poultry.

      All of us share a great responsibility (in whatever role we have…conservationist, researcher, reporter, politician) to do what we can from preventing a disaster to people and to wild birds from occurring.

      All of us need to take an even harder look at the facts first, arrived at from as wide and various a range of trustworthy sources, and then do all that what we can to provide the very best information and advice to the public and the decision-makers.

      Respectfully and with very best wishes,

      Nial Moores
      Director, Birds Korea


      Post edited by: martin, at: 2005/08/11 15:25


        Thanks for the very interesting email from Nial Moore to Declan. I look forward to seeing the sort of well-researched article she proposes.

        Martin W

          Yes, let’s hope for strong article from Declan – and from some other reporters who’ve been in touch with some bird people inc Nial and me re this issue.

          I’ve just sent a rather late, short response:

          Just rereading this email:

          I guessed the Japanese crows had been scavenging on carcasses of chickens that died of bird flu (guessing farmers maybe toss out at least some carcasses – by no means all always go by the book, at least in HK anyway [when we had an escaped young croc in New Territories, I saw news report mentioning dead chickens floating down creek it was in – helped give me notion re scavenging, inc for HK grey heron and black-headed gull]).

          Seem to remember Agonist board people got a bit excited about these crows, but, as seems to happen with wild birds and h5n1 [till this summer anyway] – they got sick, and died. [not sure if a v few found that were sick]
          – ie, as seems typical with wild birds getting this nasty avian flu variant, they didn’t become vectors.


          Post edited by: martin, at: 2005/08/14 04:06

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