The loss of wetlands around the world is forcing wild birds that may have avian influenza onto alternative sites like farm ponds and paddy fields, where they come into contact with chickens, ducks, and geese, finds a new report commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme.
Restoring lost and degraded wetlands could help reduce the threat of an avian flu pandemic by providing wild birds with their preferred habitat, , according to the report authored by Dr. David Rapport of Canada.
Current "heroic efforts" focusing on "isolation, quarantine, culls and medications" are likely to be quick fixes offering only limited short term benefits, finds Dr. Rapport. His report recommends that governments, the United Nations and public health experts back environmental measures over the medium and longer term to counter the spread of diseases like the highly pathogenic strain of bird flu, H5N1.
The H5N1 virus has been confirmed in 45 countries on three continents - Asia, Europe and Africa. To date, the virus has killed 108 people, all in Asia. Most died after handling diseased poultry.
Close contact of wild birds and poultry species is believed to be a major cause behind the spread of bird flu. Clearing intensive poultry rearing units from the flyways of migratory birds would be prudent, Rapport suggests.
"Intensive poultry operations along migratory wild bird routes are incompatible with protecting the health of ecosystems that birds depend upon. They also increase the risks of transfer of pathogens between migrating birds and domestic fowl," he writes. He also suggests reducing contact between wild birds and poultry by shifting livestock production away from humans and other mammals such as pigs.
During their biannual meeting that ended March 31 in Brazil, the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) delegates concluded that over 80 percent of known bird species, both migratory and nonmigratory, may also be at risk, with members of the crow and vultures families of particular concern.
"Often seen as the vectors of the virus, migratory birds are first and foremost its victims. Some responses to this, such as culling birds or draining wetlands, have been ill advised," CBD Executive Secretary Dr. Ahmed Djoghlaf said. "Better responses, involving the protection of the well-being and diversity of ecosystems, species and genetic resources, can mitigate against the spread of such diseases."