Avian Flu and Migratory Birds

This is the third article I have written in this newspaper this year on the Avian flu crisis. In the first in February I warned that the avian flu may become a pandemic. About two months ago, my second article focused on the issue of migratory birds and the risk of spreading the H5N1 avian virus.
But people are panicking and this is largely because of conflicting or false reports from international media sources. It has been reported that migratory birds are spreading the H5N1. Although this may be probable there is still no scientific data collected to prove it. In any case Seychelles is not at risk from migratory birds as I said previously.

In my statement on SBC Television last month I said that Seychelles was not on the Eurasian migratory flyways. This apparently contradicted a map showed on the BBC that marked the route across the Seychelles. This map is plainly wrong.

For the Africa region there are four main entry/exit points for migratory birds. Two, the Eastern Mediterranean Bab al Mandab and the River Jordan to Nile Valley corridor take birds directly to East Africa but not Seychelles. We do get vagrants that appear occasionally or annually as individuals or in small numbers.

Of the migratory species that have died from H5N1, the Little Egret, Ruddy Shelduck, Peregrine Falcon, Black-headed Gull , possibly  Brown-headed Gull, occur as individuals or very small numbers in Seychelles.  Other water bird species such as garganey or sarcel  occur in small numbers annually but have not been recorded with the H5N1. Individuals of  the feral Pigeon and the Grey Heron or florentin have also died from the H5N1. But these species are resident in Seychelles and do not pose a risk.

The risk from H5N1 arriving in Seychelles through migratory birds is very low for other reasons. The virulence of H5N1 causes death in birds thus leaving few opportunities for long distance dispersal. Also, the contact between wild birds, poultry and humans has to be extremely close and in Seychelles wild birds rarely come into close contact with poultry or humans on a regular basis.

In addition, hygiene in Seychelles and biosecurity on our poultry farms are far better than in many countries.  Moreover, being sealocked, Seychelles does not have land borders with any country.  This makes smuggling of birds or bird products very unlikely and in any case imports of live birds are not allowed.

Nevertheless, people should not handle vagrant birds, or visit bird farms and zoos overseas. Sooty terns or golet whose eggs are exploited in Seychelles are not seen as a risk because it is difficult to see how they can be infected with and carry the H5N1.

By Nirmal Shah, Nature Seychelles' CEO, published on The People Newspaper, Seychelles

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