- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 28, 2005


Scientists have been unable to link the spread of bird flu to migratory patterns, suggesting that the thousands of wild birds that have died, primarily waterfowl and shore birds, are not primary transmitters of bird flu.

If that holds true, it would suggest that shipments of domestic chickens, ducks and other poultry represent a far greater threat than does the movement of wild birds on the wing.

It also would underscore the need to pursue the virus in poultry farms and markets rather than in wild populations of birds to keep any outbreak in check, said Americans and Europeans who are knowledgeable of the subject.

The H5N1 strain has infected millions of poultry throughout Asia and parts of Europe since 2003. The virus also has killed at least 73 persons, many of whom had close contact with poultry.

The virus has not been shown to spread from person to person, but many fear that it could mutate into a strain that could, potentially killing millions in a global pandemic.

Although the prospect that migrating birds could carry the virus worldwide still worries health authorities, that sort of scenario does not appear to be happening.

“There is more and more evidence building up that wild migratory birds do play some role in spreading the virus, but personally I believe … that it’s not a major role,” said Ward Hagemeijer, a wild-bird ecologist with Wetlands International, a Dutch conservation group. “If we would assume, based on this evidence, that wild birds would be a major carrier of the disease, we would expect a more dramatic outbreak of the disease all over the world.”

Reports this summer and fall of the spread of the H5N1 strain suggested that wild birds were carrying the disease outward from Asia as they followed migration patterns. The timing and location of outbreaks in western China, Russia, Romania, Turkey and Croatia seemed to point to wild birds en route to winter grounds.

That put places like Alaska — where birds from the Old and New worlds gather each summer to create what some call an “international viral transfer center” — on alert that the virus could arrive this spring. From there, the buff-breasted sandpiper and other species that split their time between North and South America could, in theory, transport the virus farther afield.

Since the early fall, however, reports of more outbreaks have been scattered. The disease has been glaringly absent from Western Europe and the Nile Delta, where many presumed it would crop up as migrating birds returned to winter roosts.

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