Tue, Sep 06, 2005 - Page 4 News List

Ornithologists fight back for birds in avian flu debate

BLAMING THE VICTIM Armed with scientific studies and plans of avian flight paths, two British bird lovers are refuting the theory that the H5N1 virus is spread by wild birds


Two Asia-based British ornithologists are ruffling feathers in the international health community over an issue that threatens not only their beloved birds, but also human beings: avian influenza.

Martin Williams, an ornithologist in Hong Kong, and fellow bird watcher Nial Moores in South Korea are leading the charge against the growing belief that recent outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 virus were spread by wild birds.

Armed with a batch of scientific studies, plans of avian migratory paths and a passion for birds, the pair have for more than a year sought to refute this theory, which is held even within the World Health Organization (WHO).

"This theory isn't based on scientific fact or research -- it's all conjecture and bluster," said Williams, a naturist who leads bird-watching tours through Hong Kong's rural wetlands.

As new outbreaks of H5N1 encroach upon the Europe, threatening its multi-billion dollar agricultural sector, the pair say its vital for the protection of the world's birds that their word gets out.

"It could lead governments to mistakenly cull millions of wild birds unnecessarily," said Moores, chairman of Birds Korea.

"If people are led to believe wild birds are to blame that will demonize them, the places they gather and avian conservation efforts in general."

The WHO believes the H5N1 virus has the potential to explode into a global pandemic that could claim as many as 100 million lives.

Although the variant has been known for decades, it first mutated into a form lethal to humans in Hong Kong in 1997. Its high mortality rate alarmed health officials: 70-100 percent of infected chickens, geese and ducks succumbed and six of the 18 people who contracted the virus were killed by it.

Huge outbreaks throughout East and Southeast Asia in 2004 led to the deaths of dozens more people and the culling of hundreds of millions of poultry.

Scientists have argued over the disease's means of transmission, which most recently saw it spread to parts of Russia and Kazakhstan and prompted warnings that it could next move into Europe and South Asia. The explanation that appears to have found most favor is that it was spread by migratory birds who passed the disease to farm birds they came into contact with during their seasonal journeys across the globe. The theory appears to have been adopted not only by the WHO but also by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, as well as prominent bird protection groups such as the India-headquartered Wetlands International.

Williams and Moores say the theory is wrong. They base their argument on some of the most basic knowledge available to Asia-based ornithologists: the migratory paths, or flyways, of the region's birds.

"The spread of H5N1 across Asia does not match the flyways in time or space," said Williams.

They dispute the main plank of evidence for the theory -- the death in the spring of thousands of ducks around Qinghai Lake in northeast China's Qinghai Province, a popular watering spot for migrating birds -- as pure fallacy.

"By the time the disease emerged there, the birds that would usually stop there had left," Williams said.

He backs his argument with a study by Hong Kong University biology professor Kevin Shortridge and prominent New Zealand ornithologist David Melville that was published in May 2004 in the Lancet medical journal.

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