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Bird watchers not seen at risk of avian flu

2005-11-27 / agence france-presse /

Bird watchers are not in danger of contracting deadly avian flu from nomadic and migratory birds, an ornithologist and conservationists said at a conference.
A leading conservationist said there was no evidence migratory birds had passed the virus on to humans in Southeast Asia where 60 people have died of the H5N1 strain since 2003.

"We now have no evidence to show that the highly pathogenic H5N1 infection in humans have been acquired from wild birds," said Marco Lambertini from BirdLife International after the opening Friday of a three-day seminar on waterbirds in the island's southern city.

BirdLife is a grouping of international nature organizations that try to conserve bird species and their habitats.

Lambertini said victims had contracted the virus from close contact with domestic flocks of infected chickens and other sick poultry, he said. Bird watchers were not in such close contact with wild birds, he said.

Scientists fear that continued contact between infected birds and humans may result in the virus mutating into a form that could be easily passed on from human to human, sparking a devastating global pandemic.

Migratory birds are believed to spread the H5N1 virus which has reached Europe and the Gulf.

Ornithologist Leslie A. Dierauf, director of the National Wildlife Health Center attached to the US Geological Survey, said she saw "no reason" why people should stop visiting bird sanctuaries.

The comments come almost a month after Taiwanese agricultural authorities discovered bird flu in the droppings of a migratory bird in Sihcao Wildlife Preserve, one of four major habitats of migratory birds on the island.

Although the droppings were later confirmed to be infected with the less virulent H7N3 strain, the report rattled the public leading to a drop in visitor numbers to the Sihcao reserve.

Taiwan last year slaughtered 467,000 birds, mostly chickens, after the less virulent H5N2 strain was discovered on chicken farms on the offshore island of Kinmen.

Authorities say Taiwan is not a bird flu-affected area. But fears of a possible outbreak intensified after eight pet birds smuggled from China tested positive for the H5N1 virus last month.

Smuggling is rampant between Taiwan and China, which has reported outbreaks and two human deaths from the virus.