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MEA Bulletin

Guest Article

28 March 2006


by Robert Hepworth, Executive Secretary of UNEP/CMS Secretariat

In mid-2005, concerns about the role of migratory birds as potential “vectors and victims” of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza virus (H5N1), which was spreading north-westwards from its origins in poultry farms in South East Asia, led the UNEP Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) to establish a Scientific Task Force. The Scientific Task Force on Avian Influenza, which was established in August 2005, now comprises 13 UN bodies, wildlife treaties and specialist NGOs.1  The Task Force focuses on obtaining the best scientific advice on the conservation impact of the spread of H5N1, assessing the role of migratory birds as vectors of the virus, and issuing advice on the root causes of the epidemic as well as technically sound measures to combat it and develop early warning expertise.

The Task Force has already begun synthesising and disseminating the latest scientific assessments to Governments, media and the wider public. Task Force members have consistently emphasised that the evidence points towards the conclusion that Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza is being spread in a variety of ways including trade in poultry and its products; legal and illegal trade in wild and captive bred birds; human movements; and cross-infection (in both directions between poultry and migratory water birds). The relative importance of each main method of transmission remains open to argument. The impression given by some of the media, amongst whom the BBC has been a serial offender, that migratory birds are the main cause of the epidemic, is not only scientifically inaccurate given the present state of knowledge, but also has had the side-effect of frightening the public unnecessarily and generating prejudice against endangered species and their habitats. 

The Task Force works essentially through electronic correspondence and meets periodically through teleconferences. So far four teleconferences have been held. A press release and an associated Technical note were issued in October 2005, which offered advice on policy options to contain the spread of the virus, identified major knowledge gaps and research needs, and identified a list of threatened bird species considered to be at particular risk from Avian Influenza. 

Largely as a result of the Task Force’s work, successive Conferences of the Parties (COPs) to the African-Eurasian Waterbirds Agreement, the Ramsar Convention and CMS itself, held in October-November 2005, passed detailed resolutions on Avian Influenza. The three COPs endorsed a global approach incorporating:

  • higher standards and enhanced biosecurity measures in poultry farming, and development of strategies that limit the risk of disease transmission between wild and domestic animals;

  • integrated approaches, both at national and international levels, to address Avian Influenza and other animal borne diseases, putting together biodiversity and ecological expertise with those sectors traditionally responsible for public health and zoonoses, including veterinary, agricultural, virological, epidemiological and medical expertise;

  • support to research aimed at filling current information gaps related to the spread of H5N1 in relation to migratory birds and their habitats, in particular (i) a clarification of the virus’ behaviour in different waterbird populations and in their aquatic habitats; (ii) an assessment of the possibility of transmission from wild populations to domestic flocks; and (iii) identification of migration routes and timing for key migratory waterbirds;

  • the preparation of national contingency/action plans and public awareness programmes;

  • improved global surveillance of Avian Influenza in wild birds together with accurate information on the spread of the virus;

  • avoidance of ineffective or counter-productive “quick fixes” such as culling migratory birds or destroying their wetland habitats. 

More than 120 Governments endorsed one or more of the three resolutions. This month the Executive Director of UNEP will inform all Governments about the results of the three conferences, which were all held in African countries, where there is special concern about the possible economic, social and human health consequences of the spread of the virus in the continent.

The resolutions strongly endorsed the continued role of the Task Force, which has since expanded to include the World Organisation of Animal Health (OIE), CBD and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). 

Last month the CMS and AEWA Secretariats issued a media statement on the root causes and solutions for Avian Influenza following the recent acceleration of outbreaks in Europe, South Asia and Africa. In the release, CMS and AEWA took issue with “one-eyed” media reporting, blaming migratory birds for their role in spreading it, ignoring other major vectors, failing to call the poultry industry to account for unsustainable practices, and concentrating on “quick fixes” instead of addressing the ecological, social and economic root causes of the disease.

The Task Force pointed to the fact that a number of questions are yet to be answered. First, is the spread really following only migratory routes? In recent weeks, outbreaks have appeared contemporarily in different, quite distant locations. However, during their migrations birds reach different grounds at different times and stages. For instance, in India migratory birds landed in September, much earlier than the outbreak. What accounts for this time gap if an infected bird should normally release the virus within a couple of weeks of infection?

Also, there seems to be little correlation between the predominantly north-south orientation of flyways and the southeast to northwest path by which the virus has spread from SE Asia to Eastern Europe. How can this be explained? Why are some countries along migratory routes not vulnerable and others, outside of these corridors, being affected? What are other ways in which the virus can be spread? After all, movement of poultry and poultry products have been found to be most common cause of spread of virus across the world.

Moreover, there are a number of questions on the dangers posed by migratory birds to humans. Are migratory birds primary carriers, if high pathogenic avian influenza viruses are very rare in these wild animals? It should be remembered that wild birds have not been implicated in any human avian influenza infections yet recorded. While there seems to be sufficient evidence that some wild bird species can survive the H5N1 infection and even not develop the disease, in most cases H5N1 has been detected in dying or moribund birds. It is difficult for sick and dying animals to be vectors as they would not be able to fly long distances. Therefore, to what extent are migratory birds a natural reservoir of H5N1 or are they mainly victims of it, as they have contracted it from intermingling with domestic fowl? Why is such intermingling increasingly taking place – could one reason be the reduction of wetlands, which migratory birds previously used more exclusively? Who is responsible for the loss of those wetlands?

As is evident from these questions, there is the need to better understand which species can be carriers, and which ones cannot contract the virus. Also, amongst those subject to infection, it is important to differentiate between those that do not survive, and have therefore a limited capability to spread the virus, and the asymptomatic carriers whose role in the transmission of the virus needs to be further explored. 

The latest Task Force project is a partnership with UNEP to hold a scientific seminar, which is scheduled for 10-11 April 2006 and will be chaired by former SBSSTA Chairman Peter Schei of Norway, currently Chairman of BirdLife International. The seminar will include several top experts in virology, epidemiology, human and animal health, poultry farming, ecology and migration, including David Rapport, a Canadian-based scientist who is completing a new publication by UNEP on Avian Influenza and Ecohealth. CBD will present the outcome of a well-attended brainstorming session on avian influenza held in the margins of COP-8 in Curitiba, Brazil on 19 March. The seminar’s main objective is to assemble the best scientists and best research available to produce a balanced and up-to-date status report or synopsis on the H5N1 epidemic, with emphasis on the environmental and conservation aspects, including further advice on preventing or mitigating the spread of H5N1 and similar viruses. The “scientific synopsis” will be aimed at decision-makers, as well as the media and other stakeholders in the fight against avian influenza.

In addition to the Scientific Seminar, AEWA, CMS and a number of other partner organizations will launch the first World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) on 9 April 2006. WMBD related activities will take place throughout the world on this day. The main launch event will be “WINGS,” an artistic and cultural show reflecting the wonders of bird migration to be staged at the edge of the Great Rift Valley in Laikipia, Kenya. “WINGS” will be hosted by the renowned writer and conservationist Kuki Gallmann, the founder and chairman of the Gallmann Memorial Foundation and future CMS Ambassador. It will be attended by distinguished local and international guests, bird experts and the media. This event and others around the world like it connected to WMBD are designed to raise awareness about wild birds and the challenges they face during their migration. CMS and AEWA also have created WMBD information material in order to help spread the message that “migratory birds need our support now!”

For more information on WMBD please see: http://www.worldmigratorybirdday.org.

Further details on the Task Force can be found at http://www.cms.int

1CMS Scientific Task Force Members and Observers

Robert Hepworth, UNEP/CMS

Marco Barbieri, UNEP/CMS

Bert Lenten , UNEP/AEWA

Sergey Dereliev, UNEP/AEWA

David Stroud, RAMSAR

Colin Galbraith; CMS Scientific Council

Ward Hagemeijer, Wetlands Int.

Taej Mundkur, Wetlands Int.

Jan Veen, Wetlands Int.

John O’Sullivan, BirdLife Intl.

Niels Kanstrup, CIC

William Karesh, WCS

Ahmed Djoghlaf, CBD

Willem Schoustra, FAO (OBSERVER)

Richard Kock, Zool. Society of London

Christianne Bruschke, OIE (OBSERVER)

Henry Wyes, UNEP/DRC

Pierre Quiblier, WHO (OBSERVER)

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