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Bird Flu Trail Leads Medical Detectives Back to Farms (Update3)

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May 30 (Bloomberg) -- The fight to stop the spread of deadly bird flu is leading back to farms, health experts say.

Officials looking to contain the avian influenza virus that may spark a human pandemic are downplaying the importance of migrating wild birds as the source of infections among domestic poultry. Farms and poultry traders are the more likely cause of the spread of the flu, which has killed 51 people so far this year, more than all of 2005.

The focus on wild birds has led to misguided attempts to control the virus, Richard Thomas, a spokesman for BirdLife International, a Cambridge, U.K.-based conservation society, said in an interview. New research suggests the wild animals may be getting the virus from farm-based chickens and ducks.

``The disease is spreading more through commercial husbandry and the humans that are moving poultry around,'' said Juan Lubroth, head of infectious diseases at the animal-health service of the Rome-based United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. ``This is not to say that there's no risk from wild birds, but it is poultry and trade that is primarily responsible.''

Lubroth and scientists from more than 100 countries will meet today in Rome to try to shift the focus of prevention back to the animals that incubate the disease. The H5N1 virus has killed almost two of every three people infected this year, leading governments around the world to buy antivirals, including Roche Holding AG's Tamiflu, and to sponsor vaccine development. Focusing on controlling the disease in animal populations would be better, the FAO says.

Human Medicine

``We'd be able to do a lot more for human medicine and in a more cost-effective manner than stockpiling medicines or vaccines,'' Lubroth said. ``This isn't to say that this stockpiling isn't important, but there should be enough resources to go around and we haven't seen anything coming in to the FAO or animal health ministries or veterinary services.''

The FAO estimates the amount of money it needs to try to contain the disease has more than doubled to $308 million from just a few months ago because resources haven't been targeted to veterinary services. The organization has only received $71 million in funding as of May 19.

The U.S. government has earmarked $7.1 billion for speeding production of flu vaccines, stockpiling medicines, strengthening surveillance and helping states prepare for a pandemic.

Health officials are worried the lethal H5N1 virus may change into a form easily spread among people, touching off a pandemic similar to the one that began in 1918 in which as many as 50 million people died.

200 Million Fowl

Almost all of the 224 known human H5N1 cases have been linked to close contact with sick or dead birds, according to the World Health Organization in Geneva. Thorough cooking of meat and eggs kills the virus.

About 200 million fowl have been culled or have died of the disease since late 2003, costing countries as much as $15 billion, according to the FAO.

``We've never had a situation where so many countries and so many regions have been infected at one time,'' said Joseph Domenech, FAO's chief veterinary officer, at the conference today. ``In terms of socioeconomics and risks for humans, it's truly a significant situation. These are uncharted waters.''

Generally, the spread of the disease hasn't taken the course that would be expected if it followed the migratory patterns. Lubroth cited birds that migrated through the Mediterranean and didn't introduce the virus to the region. It's not clear whether this is because the birds didn't carry the virus, or because people took preventive measures, he said.

Flyways

In Nigeria, which is on so-called migratory flyways, evidence has emerged that the virus was introduced there in February through trade in infected chicks, the FAO said.

``I've been stumped by this virus for the last two years,'' Lubroth said. ``Certain things we thought would happen didn't, and then things we didn't think would happen did.''

It's possible, Lubroth said, that wild birds are being infected by poultry. Several countries may be wasting resources targeting the wild fowl, said Thomas of BirdLife International.

``The country we're most worried about is Russia,'' Thomas said. ``There have been extensive calls by politicians for teams to go out and scare off or shoot wild birds, particularly in the Novosibirsk area. We don't know if this is really being carried out or if it's just hot air.''

The FAO doesn't recommend targeting wild birds, Lubroth said. The organization does encourage better hygiene and an all- in, all-out policy, requiring that all chickens at a certain level of development are moved out of the pens before new chicks are introduced.

Poultry Production

Organizations including the FAO have encouraged poultry production as a means of increasing protein consumption and improving the standards of living among poor families in regions of Asia and Africa.

The number of chickens in Indonesia, where the WHO is investigating the largest known cluster of human infections, had risen to an estimated 271 million in 1997 from 61.8 million in 1969, according to the FAO. Almost half the 51 avian flu fatalities reported this year have occurred in the Southeast Asian country.

``We need a lot more attention paid to what is not happening in the animal sector,'' Dick Thompson, leader of the WHO's pandemic and outbreak communications team, said by phone today from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. ``Indonesia will continue to see cases as long as the disease is not adequately addressed in animals.''


To contact the reporters on this story:
Carey Sargent in Geneva at  Csargent3@bloomberg.net;
Jason Gale in Singapore at  j.gale@bloomberg.net
Last Updated: May 30, 2006 06:18 EDT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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