Experts Say Flu Fears over Wild Birds Over-Stated
TAINAN, Taiwan Fears that migratory wild birds will spread a deadly strain of avian flu across the world have little, if any, scientific proof and chances of them infecting humans are even more remote, experts said.
The experts, who attended this week a meeting of the International Waterbird Society in Taiwan, said the biggest threat of the H5N1 strain of highly pathogenic bird flu comes from domestic poultry, not wild birds.
"Wild birds are implicated spreading the disease because they travel a long distance. There is no absolute proof of that yet," professor Ron Ydenberg said on the sidelines of the three-day meeting that ended on Sunday in the southern city of Tainan.
"The real issue is where the highly pathogenic strain of the virus comes from. That's not in wild birds. It's almost certain it comes from poultry population," said Ydenberg, who heads the Centre for Wildlife Ecology at Simon Fraser University in Canada.
Scientists have warned for months that the virus, which has killed 68 people in Asia, could trigger a pandemic and kill millions once it mutates into a form that is easily transmissible among people.
The World Health Organisation says there are more than 120 documented cases of people contracting bird flu, most of whom were infected directly from poultry.
While acknowledging the risk of the lethal H5N1 virus, experts attending the meeting said there was no need to panic and adopt draconian measures such as killing migratory birds.
"I think bird flu fear has been over-emphasised," said Leslie Dierauf, director of the National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin, the United States.
"It's a very complex virus. In order to be highly pathogenic you have to mix and match with other viruses and mutate. There is no predictability to that. We don't know when it's going to mix, when it's going to match, or when it's going to mutate, or where," she said.
Rather than discouraging bird watching or calls for culling wild birds, it is more efficient to reduce contact between domestic fowls and wild birds and to improve biosecurity in the poultry industry.
"Concentrating on wild birds as the main suspect is wrong and dangerous," said Marco Lambertini of BirdLife International, based in Britain.
"The cull of wild birds in order to prevent the disease is unreasonable and impractical," Lambertini said.