Flu on the Wing of Migratory Birds
Por Francesca Colombo
Activists are calling on the European Union to ban the hunting of migratory birds, the main vector for the spread of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu from Asia.
MILAN, Italy, (Tierramérica).-
Following the first outbreaks of bird flu in Turkey, Romania, Greece and Russia, the European Union is stepping up health controls, while environmentalists are pushing for a ban on bird hunting, based on evidence that migratory species are the main vectors of the virus.
The H5N1 strain of bird flu, or avian influenza, is particularly lethal and feared for its capacity to mutate. It attacks both wild and domestic birds, and in rare cases is spread to humans through contact with the respiratory secretions or feces of infected animals.
The World Health Organization (WHO) fears that the H5N1 strain of the virus will mutate and begin to spread directly between humans, although no cases of human-to-human contagion have been confirmed to date.
On Oct. 19, the Russian government confirmed the first appearance of the deadly bird flue strain in the country's European region, in the village of Yandovka, south of Moscow.
The authorities stated that the virus had apparently been spread by migratory birds from Siberia, and ordered an immediate quarantine of the village.
In Turkey, the virus attacked birds in Kizikza, the capital of the country's poultry industry, where a quarantine has also been declared. Health workers in protective suits resembling those worn by astronauts have been sent in to gather up the birds from their pens and toss them into a sort of mobile gas chamber. The dead birds are then wrapped up and buried in lime pits.
But the actual source of the outbreak is Kush Golu, a nature preserve with a lake where many birds gather. According to experts, H5N1, one of the 15 known strains of bird flu, multiplies beneath the preserve's centuries-old trees, a resting place for migratory bird species from Asia on their way to Africa.
The Turkish government has imposed a ban on bird hunting, "a measure that should be implemented by the entire EU, because thousands of hunters come into contact with migratory species, and that poses a real danger," said Piero Malenotti of Italy's Green Party.
"In Italy alone there are 700,000 migratory birds, mainly concentrated in the north," Malenotti told Tierramérica.
The governments of several European countries, including the Netherlands, have adopted preventive measures like placing roofs or nets over chicken pens to keep domestic fowl from coming into contact with migratory birds.
If migratory birds carry the lethal flu strain on their travels across continents, the result could be an influenza pandemic, warned a study by the universities of Hong Kong and Shantou (China), published in October in the U.S. science magazine Nature.
Two months earlier, the virus had been detected in various species of migratory waterfowl at Qinghai Lake in western China, where the birds gather to breed and feed in the winter months.
This means that wild and domestic birds in Europe, India or Australia could be at risk. In Romania, on the Danube River delta, there have already been three confirmed cases of ducks infected with the same deadly H5N1 strain that has killed millions of birds in Asia over recent years.
In Greece, health authorities on the island of Chios, 480 km from Athens, have confirmed the first case of avian influenza in a turkey.
"The EU is really well prepared, it has very powerful veterinary services, and the citizens are well informed on how to deal with the virus. But other regions like Southeast Asia or Africa are vulnerable," said Samuel Jutzi, director of the Animal Production and Health Division of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), based in Rome.
"FAO has offered these countries assistance, because migratory birds could spread the virus there," Jutzi said in a Tierramérica interview.
Climate change and alterations in the environment or animal breeding processes could be responsible for the mutations undergone by the virus and the jumps from one species to another.
Until 1997, it was believed that avian influenza only affected birds. That that same year, the first cases in humans were detected. In 2004, the disease claimed 57 human lives, while 140 million domestic birds were slaughtered in the Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.
If the bird flu virus mutates in such a way that it can be spread between humans, it could kill as many as 150 million people, EU health experts maintain.
Many have begun to compare the prospect of a bird flu pandemic to the so-called Spanish flu pandemic (caused by the influenza A H1N1 virus) that killed 50 million people worldwide in 1918, or the more recent Hong Kong flu (A H3N2) epidemic that claimed 34,000 lives in the United States in 1968.
But the FAO is taking a cautious stance. "Until now, this has not been a human health problem. Avian influenza is an animal disease. For two years, thousands of people have had contact with infected birds, and there have been 63 deaths," stressed Jutzi.
"The transmission of the animal virus to human beings is not efficient, and there has been no transmission between humans. Sixty-three deaths is too many, but it is a small number compared to the number of people who have had contact with the virus in Asia," he added.
For now, the disease is threatening the livelihood of hundreds of millions of small poultry farmers, with a particular risk posed to production on family farms and small-scale industrial breeding operations, according to FAO.
Chicken and turkey consumption has dropped sharply in Europe. In Italy, the National Union of Poultry Farmers, with a membership of 80,000 workers, foresees a 40 percent decline in sales.
In 2004, the average Italian ate 18 kilograms of chicken a year. So far this year, the per capita average has fallen to 11 kilograms.
* Francesca Colombo is a Tierramérica contributor