Culling wild birds to stop bird flu 'dangerous and wrong'

Posted: 22 October 2005

A leading bird conservation agency warned this week that culling wild birds in an attempt to control the spread of bird flu virus would be entirely counter-productive.

Birdlife International says that this could could do great damage to birds and other biodiversity, while actually raising the risk to people and to the economically important poultry industry.

It says any such attempts could spread the virus more widely, as survivors disperse to new places, and healthy birds become stressed and more prone to infection.

The World Health Organisation, Food and Agriculture Organisation and OIE (the World Organisation for Animal Health) agree that control of avian influenza in wild birds by culling is not feasible, and should not be attempted.

infected poultry

While there is not concrete evidence that migratory birds have helped to transmit the disease between countries and regions, BirdLife said, the possibility could not be ruled out. The spread of the virus within and beyond Southeast Asia appears attributable to movements of infected poultry, and was not consistent with the timing and direction of wild birds.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, does however see a connection between the spread of the virus from Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia to Romania and Turkey and the migration of wild birds. "Wild birds do seem to be the main avian influenza carriers, but more research is urgently needed to fully understand their role in spreading the virus" said Joseph Domenech, FAO Chief Veterinary Officer.

"One of our major concerns is now the potential spread of avian influenze through migratory birds to northern and Astern Africa " Domenech warned. "There is a serious risk that this scenario may become a reality."

Draining wetlands

Some Middle Eastern countries are reported to be proposing to drain wetlands as a way of deterring migratory birds, but says Birdlife, any attempts to drain wetlands to ward off migratory birds would not only be disastrous for them and other biodiversity, but would also be counterproductive, for the same reasons that culling is more likely to spread the Avian Influenza virus than control it.

"Birds will seek alternative staging places, and waterfowl forced to fly further and endure more crowded conditions along their migration route will become stressed and exhausted, and more prone to infection.

"Apart from their extremely high conservation value, wetlands provide vital ecosystem services like flood control, water purification and nutrient recycling. The livelihoods of many communities, and a substantial though often unrecognised part of national economies, depend on wetlands."

Improved biosecurity

Based on the most complete available evidence from recent outbreaks of the H5N1 virus, BirdLife asserts that the most efficient control techniques involve improved biosecurity, to reduce the likelihood of contact between poultry and wild birds or infected water sources, and restrictions on movements of domestic poultry and the trade in wild-caught birds.

BirdLife International's Director of Science, Dr Leon Bennun, stressed the importance of informed and balanced judgement in responses to the threat of avian influenza, and in the public dissemination of information about it.

"It is important that discussions of the issues relating to avian influenza should differentiate between the real problems caused by the spread of the disease within bird populations, especially within the poultry industry, and the theoretical risks of a human pandemic."