Jun 2, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – Wild birds have played and will continue to play a role in carrying the H5N1 strain of avian influenza over long distances, but the virus spreads mainly through poultry trade, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
This was one of the primary conclusions reached during the 2-day FAO/World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) International Scientific Conference on Avian Influenza and Wild Birds, the FAO said in a news release. The meeting adjourned May 31 in Rome.
A concluding document stated, "Several presentations at the conference, some supported by recent publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals, implicated wild birds in the introduction of HPAI [highly pathogenic avian influenza] H5N1 virus at considerable geographical distance from known H5N1 outbreaks in poultry."
Scientists attending the conference, however, could not resolve exactly how H5N1 has spread to more than 50 countries on three continents, or whether wild birds constitute a permanent H5N1 reservoir, the FAO reported.
"This was one of the main gaps identified in our present scientific knowledge," FAO chief veterinary officer Joseph Domenech said in the press release. "We must therefore intensify our investigations."
The conference noted that the presence of avian flu in eight African countries appears to be poultry-related and mainly linked to poultry trade, the FAO said.
Tracking wild birds
To further define and help limit the spread of H5N1 in wild and domestic birds, the conference called for global tracking and monitoring that would involve multiple groups worldwide, including scientific centers, farming organizations, hunters, bird watchers, and conservation societies.
Part of that comprehensive plan, the FAO announced in a separate news release, would be a system of computers, satellites, and bird-mounted devices to track the migrations of wild birds.
The $6.8 million plan would involve capturing thousands of wild birds before they migrate, testing some for disease, and fitting some with tiny (less than 50-gram) backpacks, according to the FAO news release. Once the birds were released, telemetry equipment inside the backpacks would track the birds' movement. Radio beacons and communication satellites would feed data from the birds into computers for analysis by scientists around the world.
"All we have now is a snapshot," Domenech said in the news release. "We need to see the whole film."
Some of the money for the project is on hand, according to the FAO, but the agency needs assistance from donors and governments to fully launch the project.
FAO news release on wild birds' role
FAO news release on proposal to track wild birds