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Bird lovers doubt origin of flu

September 06, 2005

HONG KONG: Two Asia-based British ornithologists are ruffling feathers in the international health community over an issue that threatens not only their beloved birds, but also human beings: avian influenza. Martin Williams, an ornithologist in Hong Kong, and fellow bird watcher Nial Moores in South Korea are leading the charge against the growing belief that recent outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 virus were spread by wild birds.

Armed with a batch of scientific studies, plans of avian migratory paths and a passion for birds, the pair have for more than a year sought to refute this theory, which is held even within the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“This theory isn’t based on scientific fact or research — it’s all conjecture and bluster,” said Williams, a naturist who leads bird-watching tours through Hong Kong’s rural wetlands.

As new outbreaks of H5N1 encroach upon the Europe, threatening its multi-billion dollar agricultural sector, the pair say it is vital for the protection of the world’s birds that their word gets out.

“It could lead governments to mistakenly cull millions of wild birds unnecessarily,” said Moores, chairman of Birds Korea.

The WHO believes the H5N1 virus has the potential to explode into a global pandemic that could claim as many as 100 million lives.

Scientists have argued over the disease’s means of transmission, which most recently saw it spread to parts of Russia and Kazakhstan and prompted warnings that it could next move into Europe and South Asia.

The explanation that appears to have found most favour is that it was spread by migratory birds who passed the disease to farm birds they came into contact with during their seasonal journeys across the globe.

The theory appears to have been adopted not only by the WHO but also by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Williams and Moores say the theory is wrong. They base their argument on some of the most basic knowledge available to Asia-based ornithologists: the migratory paths, or flyways, of the region’s birds.

“The spread of H5N1 across Asia does not match the flyways in time or space,” said Williams.—AFP