European Bird Flu Scare Could Extend Ban on Wild Bird Imports

LONDON, UK, October 31, 2005 (ENS) - The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is calling for a month long ban on the import of captive wild birds into the European Union to be made permanent.

On Friday, the European Union barred imports of captive live birds, but not poultry, from other countries in an effort to curb the spread of bird flu. The decision was backed by a committee of EU veterinarians, officials said.

The fear of infection spreading through the import of pet birds rose after a parrot died earlier this month of the H5N1 strain, potentially deadly to humans, while in quarantine in Essex, England.

A wild parrot imported from Surinam died of the highly pathogenic H5N1 viral strain. All the birds held in the Essex facility were killed and tested, and UK officials now say the virus was found in samples taken from two birds - one Pionus parrot and one Mesia. The closest match is a strain identified in ducks in China earlier this year.


Pionus parrots similar to the one that died in quarantine in Essex earlier this month. (Photo courtesy Government of Colombia)
Veterinary authorities believe that the sick birds were infected by captive-bred birds imported from Taiwan that were kept in the same quarantine facility.

Bird flu is spreading in Europe. As the ban was announced, German officials said two geese had tested positive for the disease, the first in that country.

During October, migratory birds and poultry tested positive for the first time in Greece, Romania and Croatia, and the disease is suspected in Macedonia and Sweden. Turkey confirmed the virus on a turkey farm in the western part of the country, and Russian officials report the disease is spreading from the Siberian villages where it was first found during the summer. Previously, the highly pathogenic strain of bird flu was found in 11 Asian countries, but not in Europe.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said that making the ban on importing captive wild birds permanent would reduce the risk of the H5N1 form of the disease from reaching the UK, and would help to conserve wild bird species.

"Wild bird trade has brought several tropical species to the brink of extinction," the organization said in a statement.

But on Friday, that statement was challenged by the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which express concern "that such views are being used as an argument to make the ban on live bird imports permanent after the health crisis has passed."

The CITES Secretariat said that the international trade in the 1,700 species of wild birds regulated by CITES is "well managed and subject to robust and transparent monitoring for sustainability."

Commercial trade in endangered birds is banned by global agreement, while trade in birds that could potentially be threatened by trade is regulated through a CITES permit system. The Secretariat said that large-scale smuggling of live wild birds without a CITES permit is "difficult and relatively infrequent," although continued vigilance is needed.

The Secretariat said it has already received letters of concern from wildlife exporting countries about the future implications of avian flu for their wildlife trade.

"Many of the world’s poorest communities earn a significant part of their income from trading in wildlife, and without this income people living in close proximity to wild animals may not have the same incentive to protect them," the Secretariat said.

CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers said developing countries need to be assured that unilateral trade bans will only persist as long as there are legitimate human health concerns behind them.

“While any government may impose ‘stricter domestic measures’ under CITES to limit wildlife imports for human health or other reasons," said Wijnstekers, "international wildlife trade – like other global environmental matters – should be managed through multilateral action and agreement."


CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers of the Netherlands says the CITES permit system is effectively controlling the trade in wild birds. (Photo courtesy CITES)
"It is by working together through CITES that governments and other interested parties can best protect wildlife and maintain a sustainable trade system that prevents more plant and animal species from becoming extinct,” Wijnstekers said.

The temporary ban will require intensified border controls, the Secretariat said, and "since such measures are known to drive part of the trade underground, this may well cause birds to be imported without going through quarantine."

But Julian Hughes, head of species conservation at the RSPB, disagrees. "The trade in imported wild birds is putting many of them at risk and there is no evidence that a ban on bird imports would drive this trade underground," he said.

"It is a dangerous back-door route for avian flu to get to the UK," said Hughes, "and there are sound conservation reasons for outlawing imports permanently."

Over the last three months, 232,000 captive wild birds were imported to the EU to be sold at pet stores and other outlets, according to a European Commission spokesman.

The RSPB believes that the ban on import of wild birds into the EU should be made permanent because "the trade as it is currently practiced is not proven to be sustainable, and it places our native wildlife as well as the health of humans and livestock at risk."

Meanwhile, Margaret Beckett, who heads the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), told the House of Commons Wednesday that she is preparing legislation to reduce the risk of disease and strength the UK's ability to control an outbreak.

She said DEFRA intends to establish a register of all commercial poultry producers in the country and will start the registration process next month.

"For non-commercial poultry keepers, we have produced a simple, clear and, I hope, effective guide to biosecurity, " said Beckett, "and we are actively distributing that guide through lobby groups, veterinary networks, hobby magazines and other available channels."


Margaret Beckett has been Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs since 2001. (Photo courtesy DEFRA)
"We have also decided, with fellow member states, that in the present circumstances, it is desirable to prohibit bird fairs, markets and shows, except where a risk assessment shows that they can be safely conducted," Beckett said. "We are in full discussion of that proposal with potentially affected stakeholders."

Beckett said DEFRA has reached an agreement with ornithological groups to jointly monitor wild birds, in addition to the existing annual program of monitoring domestic poultry for bird flu that is already under way.

DEFRA Chief Veterinarian Debby Reynolds said the confirmed case of bird flu in the parrots does not affect the UK's official disease free status because the disease has only been identified in imported birds during quarantine. "The birds were in approved quarantine premises and were not in general circulation," she said. "All the birds in the consignment have been killed at the quarantine center."

EU legislation requires that birds imported into member states from outside the European Union must remain in quarantine for at least 30 days post-import.

"Our working hypothesis is that any infection in the birds from Surinam is likely to have arisen in the quarantine system, most likely in the facility in Essex where the Surinam birds shared airspace with the birds from Taiwan," Reynolds said. There are more tests underway on the birds from Taiwan because Reyonds and her team have established that some of them died before October 16, when the Surinam parrot died.

DEFRA has issued instructions to the State Veterinary Service to ensure that a case by case risk assessment is carried out on all birds currently being held in quarantine.


Bird shows such as this Free Flying Bird Show at Cornwall's Paradise Park Wildlife Sanctuary could disappear unless a risk assessment determines that they can be safely conducted. (Photo courtesy Paradise Park)
The European Commission said that all 25 EU member states now have national preparedness plans, as do 21 other countries in the World Health Organization’s European region. Additional efforts are needed as far as funding, testing and implementation of these plans are concerned.

Health experts fear that the H5N1 virus will mix with human flu viruses and mutate into a new viral strain that spreads easily among humans. To date 62 people in four Asian countries have died of H5N1 bird flu.

Hope is building that a human vaccine to prevent the spread of H5N1 might be possible.

Influenza experts have developed the first human candidate vaccine for a similar virus, known as H7N1, which can also spread from poultry to humans.

Supported by the EU Research Framework Programme, researchers from the UK, Italy and Norway, working with vaccine researchers from Sanofi Pasteur in France, have developed a vaccine called RD-3 that will go into clinical trials in spring of 2006

An expert meeting last week in Brussels concluded that a rapid mobilization of extraordinary research efforts is required to address the imminent needs in animal health and the protection of humans from both avian influenza and the potential emergence of pandemic influenza in humans that could claim millions of lives.

At a conference jointly organized by the European Commission and the Regional Office for Europe of the World Health Organisation in Copenhagen, Denmark on October 24 through 26, European health experts addressed the state of preparations for a possible flu pandemic among humans.

While stockpiling antiviral drugs and ensuring timely production of pandemic vaccines are important, the participants said, while urging that national preparedness plans address strengthening surveillance, laboratory capacity, training of personnel, and communication systems.

New antiviral drugs can help slow down an outbreak and buy time for vaccine development, the participants concluded, but they must be used responsibly, to avoid the creation of drug resistant viral strains.