We are starting to learn a little bit more about the role of wild birds and farming in the spread of H5N1 avian influenza, but lots of questions remain. While New Scientist (see story here) sticks to their claim that wild birds are spreading the virus, others are less sure. The New Scientist line of reasoning hinges on the spread of a particular strain of H5N1 that was found in wild geese at Qinghai, China last year. This is the strain that spread last year to Russia and Eastern Europe, and now Western Europe. New Scientist claims that since it is the same strain as found in wild birds, it must still be in wild birds. There are some major problems with this:
1) Now we are getting reports that the "wild" geese that were infected at Qinghai may not have been so wild, as there are ongoing efforts there to domesticate the "wild" bar-headed goose (see Nature article here).
2) There are also fish farms on the lake that use poultry manures, which can carry the virus, as fish food (see latest article here).
3) The route that the virus took in its spread westward, despite New Scientist claims, does not match any known migratory bird pathway, but does follow major railways and highways.
So, the Qinghai to Europe spread can be more easily accounted for by trade in poultry or poultry products, rather than the movement of wild birds. That said, it is troubling that there are so many wild birds with H5N1 being found in Western Europe--including dozens in Germany over the past few months. We need to learn a lot more about how these birds are contracting and possibly spreading H5N1. This may be a new stage in the spread of this virus, so all eyes should be on Europe and how wild birds are getting and carrying it there.
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