Restoring wetlands key to curbing bird flu: report

Restoring wetlands and clearing poultry farms from migratory flyways could help curb the spread of bird flu by stopping wild birds from mixing with domestic fowl, a U.N.-commissioned report said. The clearance of wetlands due to drainage for agriculture or hydroelectric projects is forcing some wild birds on to alternative sites such as farm ponds and paddy fields, bringing them into direct contact with domestic poultry, the report said. This increases the spread of the virus, which has jumped from Asia to Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “There’s a contraction for the habitat for wild birds and a natural situation arising which promotes the inter-mixing of wild birds and domestic poultry,” said David Rapport, a Canadian professor and lead author of the report.

“So should a pathogen arise in domestic poultry, it becomes more likely to be spread into wild birds… because the health of those ecosystems has been compromised,” he told a news conference in Nairobi. Wild birds are believed to have played a role in the spread of the H5N1 virus into more than 45 countries. Bird flu can infect people who come into close contact with infected poultry. Since 2003, more than 100 people have died after being infected with the virus, most of them in Asia. Scientists fear the disease could mutate into a form that could pass easily between humans, causing a pandemic in which millions could die. The report, presented at a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) seminar on bird flu, called for poultry and people to be kept apart, even though it acknowledged such plans would meet resistance in some parts of the world.

In Asia and Africa, people often live alongside their chickens and other domestic animals. “As unpalatable as this may be, where it is clearly in the interest of preventing future pandemics with potentially catastrophic global effects, it can and should be undertaken,” said Rapport, who is from the University of Western Ontario.
Experts, who met at the UNEP bird flu seminar in the Kenyan capital, said that all countries needed to undertake risk assessment and that national veterinary services should meet certain minimum standards. The experts also highlighted the need to compensate poor farmers for culling poultry. Weak veterinary services, few hospitals, lack of health education, poor communications and the prevalence of a host of other deadly diseases all mitigate against rapid detection of any cases of bird flu in Africa, the world’s poorest continent.

April 25, 2006

Original web page at Reuters