Avian flu spreads in Romania; FAO to air role of wild birds

May 25, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – Eleven new outbreaks of avian influenza in birds were reported in Romania today, as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) prepared for a major conference on the role of wild birds in spreading the virus worldwide.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported today that the discovery of 11 more outbreaks means 56 outbreaks have been found in Romania since the virus reemerged there 12 days ago. The report did not list the locations of any of the latest outbreaks.

Avian flu first turned up in Romania in backyard poultry flocks starting last October. The recent outbreaks have involved some large commercial farms and some poultry in Bucharest, the capital, triggering quarantine orders for some neighborhoods this week.

Today's AFP report quoted Marius Dobrescu of the Bucharest mayor's office as saying, "Overnight Wednesday 200 people in the fourth district of Bucharest were placed under quarantine, taking the number of isolated inhabitants in the Romanian capital to 400."

On May 22 city officials had imposed a quarantine on more than 13,000 people in the southern fourth district of the city, but the city reopened most of that area the next day.

According to AFP, Romania's health ministry today announced a lifting of the quarantine nationwide. But Dobrescu said the quarantines in Bucharest would not be lifted unless the city received written instructions.

Earlier this week, a Romanian intelligence service report blamed turkeys imported from Hungary for spreading the virus. But top Romanian officials have disavowed the report and sharply criticized the intelligence service for it.

Meanwhile, China this week reported two outbreaks of avian flu among migratory birds in its northwestern reaches. The agriculture ministry said yesterday that 399 bar-headed geese and ruddy shelducks had died of the virus in Tibet's Naqu district and in the Guoluo Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in neighboring Qinghai province, according to an AFP report published yesterday.

The ministry said the separate outbreaks were linked by a migration route. The same route also linked two other recent outbreaks in the region, in which 123 birds had died, the story said. Officials said the area is thinly populated and has no poultry farms.

Conference to focus on wild birds
The role of wild birds in spreading H5N1 will be the focus of a major conference scheduled for May 30 and 31 in Rome by the FAO and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

About 300 scientists from more than 100 countries will attend the meeting to deal with the controversy over the role of wild birds versus domestic birds, the FAO said in a statement today.

The problem at the heart of the controversy, said FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech, is that no one knows whether wild birds can serve as long-term reservoirs of highly pathogenic avian flu viruses such as H5N1.

"Where they are not reservoirs but only victims of contamination from poultry, then prevention has to remain at the domestic bird level," Domenech said. "But where they are, we have to find out which birds are involved and where they migrate to in order to prevent other wild birds and poultry being infected."

Jan Slingenbergh, senior animal health officer at FAO, said he expects there will be no clear conclusion as to whether wild or domestic birds spread avian flu to new areas. "The answer is it's a mix," he said.

In most European countries where the virus has appeared, it has been in wild birds, he said. In East Asia, the virus was probably spread by a combination of wild and domestic birds, while in Africa it appears that poultry trade has been mainly responsible, he added.

How the virus might reach US
In related news, US wildlife officials are predicting that when H5N1 avian flu comes to the United States, it will most likely arrive aboard wild swans flying across the Bering Strait or exotic birds brought in by smugglers, according to an Associated Press (AP) report published today.

H. Dale Hall, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said swans are a good bet because they were the first birds found with the virus in many European countries. But he also said there's a good chance the virus could ride in on smuggled birds or other wildlife.

State and federal agencies in Alaska recently began testing wild birds for the H5N1 virus. The first 1,300 tissue samples from migratory birds in Alaska are due to arrive at a US Geological Survey laboratory in Madison, Wis., for testing later this week, the AP reported. They come from a subsistence hunt by native Alaskans.

The story said testing duties will be shared by the Madison lab, which will check the hemagglutinin (H) type, and the US Department of Agriculture lab in Ames, Iowa, which will determine the neuraminidase (N) type.

See also:

May 25 FAO statement about upcoming conference
http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000306/index.html

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