Bird Experts Warn Against Culling Wild Birds to Control Flu

CAMBRIDGE, UK, October 20, 2005 (ENS) - The world's top bird conservation organization warned today that attempts to control the avian influenza virus by culling wild birds could spread the virus even more widely.

BirdLife International said that "hasty responses to the spread of bird flu based on incomplete or unsound data could do great damage to birds and other biodiversity," while raising the risk to people and to the economically important poultry industry.

Recent outbreaks of the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian influenza in Europe have occurred along migratory flyways, including the Danube delta, a great gathering place for migratory waterbirds, during the autumn migration.

There is no concrete evidence that migratory birds have helped transmit the disease between countries or regions, BirdLife said, but the possibility cannot be ruled out.

The H5N1 strain has this week been confirmed in Romania and Greece and is suspected in Macedonia.


Chickens make their way along a Macedonian street. A suspected bird flu outbreak in Macedonian chickens was reported Wednesday. (Photo © Natasha Dokovska)
Also this week, bird flu was confirmed in two more Siberian villages, while 19 others are being kept under observation after reports of suspected cases. The two infected villages are located in the western Siberian province of Kurgan, while those under observation are in the Novosibirsk and Altai provinces, Russia's agriculture ministry said Monday.

The spread of H5N1 within and beyond Southeast Asia appears attributable to movements of infected poultry and the patterns of the spread are not consistent with the timing and direction of movements of wild birds, BirdLife said today.

BirdLife "strongly opposes" any suggestion that wild birds should be culled as a way of controlling the spread of the disease, on grounds of practicality and effectiveness, as well as conservation.

"Any such attempts could spread the virus more widely, as survivors disperse to new places, and healthy birds become stressed and more prone to infection," the organization warned.

The World Health Organization, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Organization for Animal Health also say that control of avian influenza in wild birds by culling is not feasible, and should not be attempted.

Within Southeast Asia, movements of poultry and poultry products are known to have been involved in the virus’s spread among flocks and between countries, BirdLife says, pointing out that outbreaks in China, Kazakhstan and southern Russia are connected by major road and rail routes.

The transmission routes between outbreaks in Asia do not follow migratory flyways, BirdLife said, and outbreaks occurred in summer, when birds are moulting and do not fly far.

After the confirmed outbreaks of avian influenza in Romania and Turkey, the risk of bird flu spreading to the Middle East and African countries has increased, the FAO warned Wednesday.

"The detection of bird flu in Romania and Turkey, following outbreaks in Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, confirms FAO's recent warning that the virus is spreading along the pathways of migratory birds outside southeast Asia," said Joseph Domenech, FAO's Chief Veterinary Officer.

"Wild birds seem to be one of the main avian influenza carriers, but more research is urgently needed to fully understand their role in spreading the virus," Domenech said.

"One of our major concerns is now the potential spread of avian influenza through migratory birds to northern and eastern Africa," Domenech warned. "There is serious risk that this scenario may become a reality."

"The Middle East and northern African countries should be able to build up a line of defense against avian influenza. FAO is more concerned about the situation in eastern Africa, where veterinary services, due to various constraints, should have more difficulties to run efficient bird flu campaigns based on slaughtering infected animals and vaccination," Domenech said.

"The countries concerned and the international community have to make every effort to ensure that bird flu does not become endemic in Africa."

FAO will assist countries in Africa to strengthen the surveillance on wild and domestic birds and improve laboratory capacities in order to detect any bird flu outbreak early.

Some Asian and Middle Eastern governments are reported to be drafting proposals to drain wetlands so they will not attract waterbirds that might carry the avian flu virus, but BirdLife says that is a tactic that will not work.

"Attempts to drain wetlands to keep waterbirds away are also likely to be counterproductive, as well as disastrous for the environment, the conservation of threatened species, and for vital ecosystem services such as flood control and water cleansing," BirdLife said.


Migratory birds rest on a lake in Kemeri National Park, Latvia, in northern Europe. The park's shallow lakes and bogs provide nesting sites for thousands of migrating geese and cranes. (Photo courtesy Kemeri National Park)
Birds will seek alternative staging places, the organization said, and waterbirds forced to fly further and endure more crowded conditions along their migration route will be more prone to infection.

BirdLife does support the newly required biosecurity measures on European farms introduced by the European Commission, that are intended to reduce the likelihood of contact between poultry and wild birds or infected water sources.

These measures should be adopted worldwide, BirdLife advises, along with stricter controls or even bans on movements of domestic poultry, and on wild bird markets. Countries should also ban imports of wild-caught birds from infected areas.

BirdLife International is a partnership of national non-governmental conservation organizations and local networks, a network of experts that governments can utilize to define policies and practices that will be effective in limiting the spread of avian flu, the organization says.

“We would like to offer our expertise in the member states through our partners and invite the EU state administrations to contact our partners in country for help especially with the wild bird monitoring programs," said Dr. Clairie Papazoglou, BirdLife International’s head of EU policy.

BirdLife International’s Partners throughout Europe, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the UK, are working or preparing to work with their governments to monitor migratory wild bird populations and to provide scientific data and expert guidance.

Dr. Leon Bennun, BirdLife International’s director of science, stressed the importance of informed and balanced judgement in responses to the threat of avian influenza, and in the public dissemination of information about it.

“It is important that discussions of the issues relating to avian influenza should differentiate between the real problems caused by the spread of the disease within bird populations, especially within the poultry industry, and the theoretical risks of a human pandemic."


Ducks for sale at a market in Hanoi, Vietnam, 2004. If they are infected with bird flu, the people in contact with them may pick up the disease. Vietnam is one of the four countries where people have come down with avian flu. (Photo by Hans Wagner courtesy FAO)
The H5N1 virus has already infected more than 110 people in four Asian countries and has proved fatal in 63 cases. Now health experts are concerned that this virus will mutate into one that is easily transmissible among humans and could spread into a global pandemic that may kill up to seven million people, according to World Health Organization estimates.

The risk is particularly urgent in eastern Africa, said the FAO's Domenech. "If the virus were to become endemic in eastern Africa," he said, "it could increase the risk of the virus to evolve through mutation or reassortment into a strain that could be transmitted to and between humans."

"The close proximity between people and animals and insufficient surveillance and disease control capacities in eastern African countries create an ideal breeding ground for the virus," he warned. "The countries urgently need international assistance to build up basic surveillance and control systems."

All 25 EU member states now either have national preparedness plans for a flu pandemic in place or are rapidly developing them.

The Commission and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) have received copies of these national plans and have been analyzing them. These plans will be discussed at a European Commission – ECDC - WHO expert conference on pandemic preparedness, which is being hosted by WHO Europe in Copenhagen October 24 through 26.

The ability of national and European level decision makers to coordinate their response to an influenza pandemic will be tested before the end of the year in an EU wide crisis simulation exercise.

The two day exercise will involve national public health authorities, the Commission, the ECDC and the European Medicines Agency, the World Health Organization and representatives of the vaccine and pharmaceutical industries.

Officials in command centers across Europe will react to imaginary emergency scenarios, in order to rehearse decisionmaking and coordinating communication on issues such as public health measures, implications of a pandemic for healthcare and other essential public services.

A particular focus will be to explore the ability of national and EU-level authorities to co-ordinate a Europe-wide response and to share information quickly and effectively. The exercise will not involve any “real world" mobilization of emergency services and healthcare staff but rather it will be command center and desk based.

The exercise is being funded by the Commission and is being run by the UK Health Protection Agency. The dates of the exercise and details of the scenarios are not being publicly announced, in order to make it as realistic as possible. Prior to the flu pandemic simulation exercise, a smaller scale health emergency exercise will be held to test the security of communications in this area.