Worldwide Wetland Restoration Could Reduce Bird Flu Threat

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 11, 2006 (ENS) - The loss of wetlands around the world is forcing wild birds that may have avian influenza onto alternative sites like farm ponds and paddy fields, where they come into contact with chickens, ducks, and geese, finds a new report commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Restoring the tens of thousands of lost and degraded wetlands could help reduce the threat of an avian flu pandemic by providing wild birds with their preferred habitat, according to the report authored by Dr. David Rapport of Canada.

The reportís preliminary findings were announced today at a scientific seminar on avian influenza taking place at UNEP headquarters in Nairobi.

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Ecohealth expert Dr. David Rapport is co-founder of the International Society for Ecosystem Health and editor-in-chief of the society's quarterly journal, "Ecosystem Health." (Photo courtesy U. Western Ontario)
"Wetland depletion has direct implications for migrating wild birds," Dr. Rapport writes. "Wetland habitat world-wide continues to decline, owing to agricultural expansion and urban development, resulting in fewer staging areas for wild migrating birds."

The remaining wet areas associated with rice paddies and farm ponds would be expected to be increasingly attractive to wild birds lacking enough natural habitat for staging, nesting and migration, he explains.

Current "heroic efforts" focusing on "isolation, quarantine, culls and medications" are likely to be quick fixes offering only limited short term benefits, finds Dr. Rapport, an honorary professor of the Ecoystem Health Program, Faculty of Medicine, University of Western Ontario, and a member of the firm EcoHealth Consulting of Salt Spring Island, British Columbia.

His report recommends that governments, the United Nations and public health experts back environmental measures over the medium and longer term to counter the spread of diseases like the highly pathogenic strain of bird flu, H5N1.

This strain has killed or caused the culling of 200 million poultry birds in the current outbreak that began in December 2003.

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After dying of avian flu or being culled, chicken carcasses are burned at a farm in Long An province, near Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. (Photo courtesy FAO)
The H5N1 virus has been confirmed in 45 countries on three continents - Asia, Europe and Africa. To date, the virus has killed 108 people, all in Asia. Most died after handling diseased poultry.

Health experts fear that the H5N1 strain could mutate into a form of the virus that spreads easily from human to human, triggering a global avian flu pandemic that might cause the deaths of millions of people.

Close contact of wild birds and poultry species is believed to be a major cause behind the spread of bird flu. Clearing intensive poultry rearing units from the flyways of migratory birds would be prudent, Rapport suggests.

"Intensive poultry operations along migratory wild bird routes are incompatible with protecting the health of ecosystems that birds depend upon. They also increase the risks of transfer of pathogens between migrating birds and domestic fowl," he writes.

He also suggests reducing contact between wild birds and poultry by shifting livestock production away from humans and other mammals such as pigs.

The report acknowleges that in some parts of the world, such as Southeast Asia, separating poultry from people is at odds with generations of cultural traditions and practices.

"As unpalatable as this may be, where it is clearly in the interest of preventing future pandemics with potentially catastrophic global effects, it can and should be undertaken," Rapport says.

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Duck farm in Thailand with newly installed net to keep ducks and wild birds apart, a measure against spread of the avian flu virus. (Photo courtesy FAO)
Shafqat Kakakhel, UNEP deputy executive director, said, "These thought provoking findings will need to be looked at in detail by all those involved in fighting current and future threatened pandemics. However, what this research underlines is that the link between a healthy environment and disease prevention is no marginal topic, but an important component in public health policy, particularly in a globalized world."

He said, "There are numerous pressing reasons for conserving and restoring degraded ecosystems like wetlands."

Wetlands are natural water storage features that filter pollution, help absorb floods, and are inhabited by numerous species including fish. "Their ability to disperse and keep wild birds away from domestic ones is now yet another compelling argument for conserving and rehabilitating them," said Kakakhel.

During their biannual meeting that ended March 31 in Brazil, the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) concluded that a far wider range of species than birds may be affected by bird flu. Large cats like leopards and tigers, small cats such as civets, and other mammals like martens, weasels, badgers, and otters might also be at risk.

The CBD delegates concluded that over 80 percent of known bird species, both migratory and nonmigratory, may also be at risk, with members of the crow and vultures families of particular concern.

Culling of poultry, especially in developing countries where chicken is a key source of protein, may lead to local people killing wild animals for food, the CBD delegates warned. This may put new pressure on endangered species such as chimpanzees, gorillas and other great apes.

The CBD delegates also expressed concern over the development of a genetic monoculture of domestic poultry, claiming that this may make domestic fowl less disease resistant.

The two day avian flu seminar, organized by UNEP, the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), and the African Eurasian Water Bird Agreement builds on the work of the international Scientific Task Force on avian influenza established by CMS last August, which now includes experts from 13 UN agencies, treaty organizations and nongovernmental organizations.

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Performance at the Laipipia Conservancy in Kenya on the occasion of the first World Migratory Bird Day (Photo courtesy Gallman Memorial Foundation)
It was preceded on Sunday by the first World Migratory Bird Day where the main celebrations were organized by internationally renowned author Kuki Gallmann and the Great Rift Valley Trust at the Laikipia Conservancy in Kenya.

To mark World Migratory Bird Day, CBD Executive Secretary Dr. Ahmed Djoghlaf said, "Threats to migratory birds reflect threats to biodiversity at large. Indeed, the main threat to migratory birds, habitat loss, is also one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss."

Mentioning high-voltage power lines, habitat fragmentation, and over-hunting, Dr. Djoghlaf stressed that migratory birds now face the unprecedented additional threat of avian influenza.

"Often seen as the vectors of the virus, migratory birds are first and foremost its victims. Some responses to this, such as culling birds or draining wetlands, have been ill advised," he said. "Better responses, involving the protection of the well-being and diversity of ecosystems, species and genetic resources, can mitigate against the spread of such diseases."

The draft report, "Avian Influenza and the Environment: An Ecohealth Perspective" has been submitted to UNEP by Dr. David Rapport, EcoHealth Consulting, with contributions from John Howard, Luisa Maffi and Bruce Mitchell. A final version is to be published soon on www.unep.org.