With editing and additional comments by Dr. Martin Williams and Charlie Moores
H5N1 Poultry Flu has now reached Europe. In the second half of October, cases of H5N1 have been reported in a cluster of countries in South-east Europe (Turkey, Romania, Croatia) and in western Russia, while cases of "bird flu" have also been reported in the UK and Sweden, and suspected in Germany.
Here in South Korea too, following on from their efforts to use wild birds as a reason to reclaim wetlands, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has also this month distributed a pamphlet showing the spread of H5N1 from migrant birds (Oriental White Stork, Mallard and Falcated Duck) to resident birds (crows, sparrows), onto poultry. It is clear, according to the more hysterical elements of the media, that the timing and pattern of spread simply matches the timing and migration routes of wild migratory birds: wild birds are therefore carrying H5N1, infecting poultry and bringing with them the risk of a major human pandemic.
National KBS TV in Korea, as part of its news coverage over the past few weeks, has broadcast images of dead birds in Sweden (where the outbreak was later shown NOT to be H5N1), shown culls in other nations, highlighted the disease reaching the UK, and repeatedly shown images of flocks of geese at Seosan: all part of the H5N1 story it seems.
This despite the lack of evidence from South Korea or elsewhere that wild birds have ever, or even now are, spreading Poultry Flu.
Healthy wild birds continue to test H5N1-free. Even in China, where there have been probably three outbreaks of H5N1 in poultry this autumn "The State Forestry Administration says there have been no cases of bird flu among wild birds" (see: http://email@example.com).
The same species of bird migrating into Europe from breeding areas in Siberia have at the same time been migrating southeast into East Asia. These species include Greater White-fronted and Bean Geese and Pochard: all species somehow loosely suggested by some media as carriers, all species radiating generally southward from breeding areas into western Europe and Eastern Asia. Additionally, Ruddy Shelduck, Mongolian Gull and Great Cormorant, three species affected in the Mongolian H5N1outbreaks in the summer, have already arrived here in South Korea for the winter.
Even with very much greater awareness and coverage, there are, however, no outbreaks in wild birds being reported here. Or for that matter, in Japan, in Taiwan or in the Philippines - all countries that should be receiving wild migrant waterbirds from the same previously infected areas. All countries, it needs to be noted, with apparently fairly strict import controls on poultry and caged birds. No outbreaks in Australia or New Zealand either, or even in North America - all regions where the disease was confidently predicted to spread once it had reached the melting pot breeding grounds of Siberia.
The only "new" confirmed outbreaks in Asia continue to come from countries where the disease has long been present (e.g. China and Thailand), where H5N1 is already very widespread in poultry and caged birds ("the virus has apparently become endemic in China, the disease controlled mainly by vaccinations". - Mod. AS, Pro-Med Listserver, October 24, 2005); where it is reported in some cases that people are still hiding infected and healthy birds from officials for fear of economic losses; where the trade in poultry and caged birds continues.
At the same time, in northern Europe the "outbreak" in the UK was actually confined to a parrot imported from Suriname (South America) and held in quarantine, likely infected after being held in close proximity with caged birds from already known affected regions (see: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1841343,00.html). The infection was NOT from contact with caged birds from H5N1-free Taiwan as first suggested, where in late October a shipment containing smuggled infected birds was stopped at port preventing an outbreak there.
In addition, the Swedish outbreak was found to be of H5N2 (and NOT H5N1) while in Germany, a flock of dead waterbirds was confirmed as due to poisoning, rather than succumbing to H5N1 (see: http://www.expatica.com/source/site_article.asp? subchannel_id=52&story_id=24800&name=Lab+test+confirms+geese+were+not+bird+flu+victims).
Elsewhere in Europe too, France and Denmark now report outbreaks of an entirely different poultry-based disease - Newcastle Disease (with a futher outbreak of the same disease also now suspected in Bali): further revealing just how prone poultry are to disease outbreaks.
The outbreaks of H5N1 in South-east Europe are on the surface more puzzling. Said at first to be centred on the Danube (where of course many migrant waterbirds concentrate, including pelicans - shown often on BBC TV in their H5N1 coverage apparently, even though they have no obvious connection to any Asian outbreaks), one outbreak was even said to be "near a wetland"...
The coincidence of outbreak dates with the arrival of migrant birds was thus accepted by one RSPB spokesperson as some kind of proof of spread by wild birds. However, considering the recent spread of the disease to and within Russia, and that subsequent outbreaks are now being reported in village farm after village farm, the more familiar pattern of spread through movement of poultry (long found in SE Asia) instead now appears to be emerging, though this time in Europe.
Infected farms and poultry have in the past infected waterways and wild waterbirds in Asia: why would the same not happen in Europe too?
At the same time, the absence of major outbreaks in wild birds in Europe (or Asia or anywhere) on the scale of the outbreak at Qinghai in the spring, suggests that either the virus has lost some of its virulence, or again more likely, that its reservoir remains, for now, firmly in caged birds and poultry - and not in wild bird populations.
And trade in and movement of poultry and caged birds is enormous, involving likely many more individuals than wild waterbirds undertaking migration from e.g. Asia to Europe.
According to various news sources, the legal global trade in poultry numbers many billions of birds per year; caged birds, millions (between 2 million to 5 million wild birds trapped legally per year, with 65% of these destined for Europe, according to a news source citing Elain Toland of the Animal Protection Agency); and the dimensions of the illegal trade are also known to be huge: "The black market in illegal animal products, estimated by Interpol to be worth USD 6 to 10 billion annually (2nd only to the illegal drug trade), threatens the health of humans and may lead to the extinction of many species of animals. - Mod.AS: Pro-Med, October 23, 2005).
While the EU moves, finally, to prevent the spread of H5N1 through imposing stricter import restrictions on caged birds (something it should have done years ago for moral and conservation purposes), it also needs to recognise that H5N1 is already in Europe.
Outbreaks will therefore likely flare-up periodically within the region as they have done in South-east Asia, kept alive by legal and illegal movements, by inadequate monitoring and by people often doing all they can for money...
As noted time and again, it is people that have created the conditions that Poultry Flu requires to thrive in and evolve. It is therefore people that sooner or later will need to make a choice: cheap chicken and caged birds (and with them the risk of extinctions and disease pandemics); or a well-thought out change to a much more sustainable and balanced way of life.
For a personal view on Poultry Flu and the UK experience, please visit: