spreading scientific doubts over wild birds n flu

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    Martin W

      just come across this, posted on yahoo news

      Bird lovers spread scientific doubts over wild birds and flu Monday September 5, 11:41 PM HONG KONG (AFP) – Two Asia-based British ornithologists are ruffling feathers in the international health community over an issue that threatens not only their beloved birds, but also human beings: avian influenza.

      Martin Williams, an ornithologist in Hong Kong, and fellow bird watcher Nial Moores in South Korea are leading the charge against the growing belief that recent outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 virus were spread by wild birds. Armed with a batch of scientific studies, plans of avian migratory paths and a passion for birds, the pair have for more than a year sought to refute this theory, which is held even within the World Health Organisation (WHO). "This theory isn’t based on scientific fact or research — it’s all conjecture and bluster," said Williams, a naturist who leads bird-watching tours through Hong Kong’s rural wetlands.

      As new outbreaks of H5N1 encroach upon the Europe, threatening its multi-billion dollar agricultural sector, the pair say it vital for the protection of the world’s birds that their word gets out. "It could lead governments to mistakenly cull millions of wild birds unnecessarily," said Moores, chairman of Birds Korea. "If people are led to believe wild birds are to blame that will demonise them, the places they gather and avian conservation efforts in general." The WHO believes the H5N1 virus has the potential to explode into a global pandemic that could claim as many as 100 million lives.

      Although the variant has been known for decades, it first mutated into a form lethal to humans in Hong Kong in 1997. Its high mortality rate alarmed health officials: 70-100 percent of infected chickens, geese and ducks succumbed and six of the 18 people who contracted the virus were killed by it. Huge outbreaks throughout East and Southeast Asia in 2004 led to the deaths of dozens more people and the culling of hundreds of millions of poultry. Scientists have argued over the disease’s means of transmission, which most recently saw it spread to parts of Russia and Kazakhstan and prompted warnings that it could next move into Europe and South Asia.

      The explanation that appears to have found most favour is that it was spread by migratory birds who passed the disease to farm birds they came into contact with during their seasonal journeys across the globe. The theory appears to have been adopted not only by the WHO but also by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation as well as prominent bird protection groups such as the India-headquartered Wetlands International.

      Williams and Moores say the theory is wrong. They base their argument on some of the most basic knowledge available to Asia-based ornithologists: the migratory paths, or flyways, of the region’s birds. "The spread of H5N1 across Asia does not match the flyways in time or space," said Williams. They dispute the main plank of evidence for the theory — the death in the spring of thousands of ducks around Qinghai Lake in northeast China’s Qinghai province, a popular watering spot for migrating birds — as pure fallacy. "By the time the disease emerged there, the birds that would usually stop there had left," said Williams. He backs his argument with a study by Hong Kong University biology professor Kevin Shortridge and prominent New Zealand ornithologist David Melville that was published in May 2004 in The Lancet medical journal. "The timing and distribution of the reported spread of H5N1 … does not fit any known migratory pattern for any species," they state in the article, entitled "Influenza: time to come to grips with the avian dimension".

      The article argues instead that the disease was more likely spread by the unrestricted movement of domesticated poultry, or even illegal trade in fighting cocks. This view is also supported by research by Dennis Alexander in the journal Veterinary Microbiology. He argues that although wild birds may carry many types of flu and may infect agricultural birds, it is human movement of birds through farming, slaughter and trade that accelerates its spread.

      Williams and Moores believe the explanation has at best been fanned by a combination of ignorance and, more seriously, a scare-mongering conspiracy to protect the vested interests in poultry farming. "Those pushing these beliefs are simply playing to people’s fears of the unknown and birds have become the new enemy," said Moores. "There is also a anti-Asian element here: the disease is always portrayed in the media as a mysterious killer from Asia, even though this disease has been around in the United States for years."

      Williams believes the multi-disciplinary nature of issue has been a hurdle to understanding. "The problem is that this idea has been cooked up by medical people who don’t know birds, whereas the people who do know birds have traditionally been a quiet bunch who have rarely been listened to anyway," he said.

      Williams and Moores’ campaign has focused on the most outspoken proponent of the theory, American geneticist Henry Niman, who has appeared in countless television shows and newspapers warning against the horrors of migratory birds. In online forums they have questioned Niman’s motives and queried his evidence, presented on his recobinomics.com website. They are also now urging the world’s bird-watching societies to weigh in to provide vocal opposition. "A year ago we were warning that migratory birds were going to get the brunt of the blame, and we were right," said Moores. "It’s time someone fought back for the birds," added Williams.

      News to me that I’m a naturist! B)

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