As the steady drip of new cases of the H5N8 strain of bird flu from the Netherlands threatens to turn into a flood, there has been a concerted effort to find the source of these outbreaks.
The disease has been found in Germany and the UK but the Netherlands has seen the most cases.
Despite every case so far being found in indoor farms, some are arguing vociferously for all free range flocks to be brought indoors and claiming wild birds are responsible for giving farm birds the disease.
This leap of logic withers under the light of the statement released yesterday by the Scientific Task Force on Avian Influenza and Wild Birds.
The first “key message” of the task force, which is made up of organisations including Bird Life International, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Royal Veterinary College, is unequivocal:
“Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreaks are most frequently associated with intensive domestic poultry production and associated trade and marketing systems.”
I would urge everyone to read the statement. It is a rigorously balanced but clear assessment of the facts as we know them. It reacts to the irresponsible scapegoating of wild birds with a firm call for a balanced approach which doesn’t focus on wild birds at the expense of other potential sources, entreating organisations and agencies to:
“Ensure there is no consideration of killing of wild birds or negatively affecting wetland habitats as disease control measures; and recognise that focussing attention on wild birds, to the exclusion of other potential viral vectors, can misdirect critical resources away from effective disease control and result in continued spread among poultry populations and economic losses to farmers and national income, as well as negative conservation outcomes and loss of biodiversity.”
Common sense marries up nicely with science in this case. If all of the cases so far have been on indoor farms, and the disease has only been found in one Teal, significantly after the outbreak in Germany, and two Wigeon in the Netherlands, then is it not more likely that the direction of infection is from intensively farmed to wild birds through the droppings spread on fields, rather than the other way around?
We can see this bias in the recent call from the International Poultry Council any trade bans designed to contain avian influenza outbreaks do not affect the supply of breeding stock.
The statement also points out something else we at Compassion have been saying:
“There is speculation that the virus has been spread from eastern Asia via wild birds. Firstly, it should be noted that direct migration by wild birds from eastern Asia (e.g. China or Korea) to western Europe would be highly unusual. Flyways are characteristically ‘north – south’ (with some areas of ‘overlap’ of contiguous flyways at higher latitudes), and waterbirds breeding in northeast Asia tend to migrate southwards into east and southeast Asia, and not into Europe.
“Movement of the virus from eastern Asia into western Europe via wild birds within an apparently short timeframe would be extraordinary, particularly in the absence of extreme weather conditions during this time.”
I said the statement is balanced because it doesn’t rule out completely the hypothesis that the disease has been spread by wild birds, but what it does do is caution us against this rush to scapegoat wild birds, which could lead to disastrous actions like culling them, which would not get rid of the problem of avian influenza and would devastate vital ecosystems.
With new outbreaks in Canada, the strain of which have yet to be identified, we should heed the message of the scientific task force and be highly sceptical of those who seek to deflect attention away from the intensive poultry industry, to whose ranks the disease has so far been confined.