Accessibility links

Breaking News

Bird Flu: How Much Are Wild Birds To Blame?

An advert for Russian chicken in Moscow (file photo) (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, May 30, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Since 2003, bird flu -- or, more precisely, the H5N1 strain of bird flu -- has killed at least 127 people and ravaged poultry flocks in Asia, Europe, and Africa. But why has it spread so fast, and how much is this due to wild birds? These and other questions are being discussed at a two-day conference in Rome by 300 scientists and veterinary experts from some 100 countries brought together by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Organization for Animal Health. Joseph Domenech, the chief of the FAO's animal health service, spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc about the situation in Europe.

RFE/RL: The bird-flu virus continues to spread, with, most recently, over 100 outbreaks recorded among poultry in Romania and concern about possible human-to-human transmission in Indonesia, where seven people have recently died of the disease. What are the main topics experts are discussing at the Rome conference?

"Internally, within a country, or in a small region, the maximum risk is due to trade."

Joseph Domenech: The main issues are to know if [migratory birds] play a big or minor role compared with trade and other means [of spreading the virus]. And, also, to know if [wild birds] could become permanent or at least long-term reservoirs of the virus. And we will try to identify the [information] gaps still missing to understand exactly what is going to happen.

RFE/RL: Are there any clear indications that wild birds are the main culprits for the rapid spread of the bird-flu virus from Southeast Asia all the way across such a huge stretch of land?

Domenech: The very quick expansion of the virus from Southeast Asia to northern Asia, Siberia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Western Europe is definitely due to wild birds, essentially. And you can see, in Western Europe, it's only wild birds. The very few cases of farms being infected, they were infected from wild birds.

RFE/RL: On occasion, there have been intervals of several months between cases found in wild birds, such as those in the Danube delta, and the actual outbreak of the virus in domestic birds.

Domenech: Its long-distance introduction may be due to wild birds in some cases, and due to trade -- or illegal trade -- in other cases. But, internally, within a country, or in a small region, the maximum risk is due to trade.

The Public's Overheated Reaction

An army of health workers at the ready during an outbreak in Ukraine (ITAR-TASS)

RFE/RL: In some situations, the public reaction to such outbreaks, however limited, tends to be exaggerated, mainly because of a lack of proper information about the danger the H5N1 strain of the virus poses to humans. Alternately, officials are either being accused of complacency or overreaction.

Domenech: Sometimes, there is overreaction from the administration, but it is not very frequent. On the contrary, what is very frequent is the overreaction of consumers, the population. In terms of communication, there is a lot of work to do, because it's really not normal to see suddenly half of the population stopping eating eggs or chicken. There is no reason for that when there is no disease or when the disease is very limited to a few places and completely under control.

RFE/RL: In Western Europe, preventing the virus from spreading in the domestic bird population was easier, because poultry is being raised in specialized farms. But in Eastern Europe, in countries such as Romania, Ukraine, or Russia, people keep poultry in their own backyard, sometimes even in big cities, and neither the sanitary conditions, nor the control the authorities have over such areas, is adequate.

Domenech: When you are referring to some countries of Central or Eastern Europe, the veterinary services are essentially not at the same level with Western Europe, but they are improving a lot very quickly, and [improving] their capacity to respond. They have to be helped more efficiently, and they have to decide that they should put more staff on this, and [increase] budgets to prevent animal disease.

Affected Areas

Affected Areas

Click on the map for a closer view of the areas within RFE/RL's broadcast region where cases of diseased fowl have been confirmed. Last updated on February 20.

BIRD FLU, or avian influenza, continues to menace scattered areas from East Asia, where the disease first appeared, to Southeastern and Eastern Europe and beyond. Authorities around the world are bracing themselves -- and, more importantly, planning and taking measures to fight the disease wherever it appears.

Stories Of Particular Interest:

Bird-Flu Expert Discusses Issue Of Migratory Birds

Bird Flu: As European Worries Grow, Some See Benefits In Alarm

WHO Laboratory In London Is At Center Of Drama

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.