What We Don't Know About Bird Flu

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Joel Achenbach wrote an excellent article on avian influenza ["Can We Stop the Next Killer Flu?" Magazine, Dec. 11].

However, Mr. Achenbach wrote that the H5N1 virus is moving into Europe with migratory birds. The truth is that there are too many major unknowns to be certain this is the case.

We don't know how long (or whether) wild birds can survive after infection and, if they do, how long after infection they become sick or die. We don't know if wild birds could contract this virulent disease and remain healthy enough to fly long distances. If so, we would expect to see outbreaks all along those routes, not just at endpoints.

Most outbreaks in Europe occurred close to poultry farms. Some occurred when migratory birds were not present.

Our concern is not just scientific hedging. In some countries, wild birds have been culled and calls have been made to drain wetlands. As the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations notes, culling of wild birds or destruction of their habitat is neither practical nor feasible from the standpoint of logistics, environment, public health or biodiversity. The U.N. organization notes that attempts to cull or the destruction of habitat could result in the dispersion of birds. If the birds were infected, that could spread the virus.

Good poultry farming practices and a cessation of the spreading of chicken manure on farm fields are more likely to help stop the spread of avian influenza, and that would spare the wild birds that are such an important part of our natural world.

ELLEN PAUL

Executive Director

Ornithological Council

Washington


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