Sun, Oct 30, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Bird flu paranoia leads to bans and political tension


In Latin America, some countries are taking draconian steps to stop bird flu before it even shows up.

In recent days, five countries banned poultry from Colombia. Then, Colombia banned rice from Bolivia and Ecuador.

Experts say it's wise for governments to prepare for a potential worldwide flu outbreak that could arise if the bird flu sweeping Asia morphs into a form that's easily spread among people.

But they say these import bans make no scientific sense. And the measures have unnecessarily raised cross-border political tensions and hurt commerce.

This strange episode began on Oct. 10, when Colombia took the unusual step of notifying world health authorities about a flock of chickens infected with a mild type of bird flu different from the virus in Asia. Chickens can get several varieties of bird flu, not all of them risky to people.

Colombia's action suffered an almost immediate backlash for being overly cautious and for raising the bird flu specter unnecessarily.

Bolivia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela halted imports of Colombian poultry -- even though Colombia insisted tests by the US Department of Agriculture under supervision of the Pan-American health officials proved the virus was not the H5N1 sweeping Asia or another highly pathogenic strain.

Colombia "didn't even have to report this low pathogenic virus," said Richard Lee, a bird flu expert and professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

But the reaction by Colombia's neighbors, he said, was "definitely not justified."

Yanzhong Huang, a bird flu specialist who heads the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University in the US, said the action by Colombia's neighbors might confuse the public if the poultry bans are long-term.

"It could reinforce the misperception that you could catch flu by eating fowl," Huang said.

Experts say no one has caught bird flu from eating properly cooked poultry.

Colombia struck back at some of its neighbors last week by halting imports of rice from Bolivia and Ecuador, though Colombian officials denied that the move was retaliatory.

Colombia's Agriculture Minister Andres Felipe Arias was quoted on El Tiempo newspaper's Web site as saying that "migratory birds land in rice fields."

But rice has never been identified as a "passive carrier" of bird flu, and any flu in rice would be killed in cooking, said Lee.

Lee said that it was "pretty damned unlikely" that anyone could die after eating rice.

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