The world may be on the verge of a pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that all countries undertake urgent actions to prepare for a new, global, influenza pandemic. I wrote about this earlier in this newspaper but the poultry flu strain known as H5N1 continues to move across the world. Wild birds are frequently blamed which is why I am interested.
The H5N1 virus is spreading, with recent outbreaks in China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and several regions of Russia, additional to the spread through SE Asia since the end of 2003. It is not yet clear how the disease is spreading. Movement of domestic birds seems to have a significant role, but migrating waterbirds may also be involved.
The Seychelles are not on the major migratory routes or flyways of birds. Except for some seabirds there are no large movements of bird flocks. But there are indeed some water birds that visit our shores. WHO and FAO have stated that control of the disease in wild bird populations is not feasible and should not be attempted. Wild waterfowl have been known for some time to be the natural reservoir of influenza A viruses. But, the role of these birds in the spread of avian influenza remains very poorly understood.
Several Seychellois have called me recently, worried about possible infections from wild birds. BirdLife International says there are no records of transmission of the disease between infected wild birds and humans. The H5N1 strain is not currently contagious between humans and most human cases have been associated with close contact with infected domestic poultry. The risk of a human contracting the disease from a wild bird is remote.
The most efficient control techniques involves reducing contact between domestic stock and wild birds or infected water sources. This needs to be tied in with quick culls of infected poultry stocks in the event of an outbreak. The ban on imports of domestic poultry and untreated bird products such as fresh meat from affected regions is very sensible. The country has had bans on imports of wild birds for the pet trade for a long time. Cautioning Seychellois and others against access to infected sites is also a good precaution.
Should the H5N1 mutate into a form that is transmissible in humans, it has the potential to kill many more people. Equally, incorrect information about, or irrational actions against, wild birds could result in the destruction of large numbers of birds ending in long term loss of biodiversity and a wider dispersal of birds and thus potentially the disease. BirdLife urges a cautious and scientific approach to dealing with this threat.
By Nirmal Jivan Shah, published on the People Newspaper, 8th September 2005