Experts blame both wild birds and poultry trade for spreading bird flu

01-06-2006 | |

Experts at an H5N1 conference in Rome have agreed that a cloud of mystery hangs over the spread of bird flu, but they say that both migratory birds and poultry trading – legal and illegal – are likely to be to blame.

More than 300 experts and scientists attended the conference, which was organised by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Animal Health Organisation (OIE).

Jospeh Domenech, the FAO’s chief veterinary officer said that more research needed to be undertaken to more accurately determine the role that wild birds play in spreading the virus. “Do we have a permanent reservoir in wild birds or not? It still remains a question. We have identified the gaps and the need to continue and intensify research, in particular with regards to the species which can be involved,” he said.

Domenech’s message was that wild birds are not the only factors to blame, and that his organisation does not support killing wild birds. “If wild birds have a role, the only answer is to monitor them,” he said.

Many have pointed the finger at migratory birds for the spread of H5N1, but some have blamed the poultry industry for virus’s spread. One such person is William Karesh, of New York’s Wildlife Conservation Society. “We still don’t understand this movement of wildlife. We have good records for legal trade, but that’s only a bit of what’s going on and it’s probably not where the problems are. Focusing efforts at markets to regulate, reduce, or, in some cases, eliminate the trade in wildlife could provide a cost- effective approach to decrease the risks in disease for humans, domestic animals and wildlife,” he said.

Domenech also agreed that bird trade needed closer monitoring. “We have to focus on this issue of trade because it’s the most frequent way if spreading disease from one region to another. We’re talking about illegal trade here as well, which is much more difficult to regulate. This includes legal and illegal trade in wild birds which is quite significant and often ignored,” he said.

Robert Webster, an American avian flu expert from St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, believes that both wild birds and humans for the havoc wreaked by the virus. “In this outbreak of H5N1, it’s a combination. There is no doubt that the wild birds play their role, but so do humans. People acknowledge that probably the most important spreader of influenza overall is the … globalisation of trade,” he said.

Domenech said that greater cooperation between different agencies and fields related to poultry and birds was required to understand the disease and find ways to prevent it from becoming a pandemic. “We need more coordination to bring together all the information in order to better understand and solve the puzzle,” he said.

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