From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2005:
Everyone but the chicken-eaters takes blame for spreading H5N1
TULCEA, Romania––The avian flu H5N1, hitting the poultry industry hard throughout Asia, spreading into Europe, and potentially deadly to humans, has never infected dogs.
That did not stop officials hellbent on finding a pretext to kill street dogs near Balikesir, Turkey, when H5N1 was discovered there in early October. Street dogs were as easily blamed as anyone for the economic havoc and emotional trauma resulting from wholesale massacres of domestic poultry in thus far futile efforts to contain H5N1.
Rumors of the first Romanian dog massacre ascribable reached animal advocacy groups and news media on November 9.
The killing allegedly occurred near Tulcea in the eastern Danube Delta region, shortly after the H5N1 virus was on October 13, 2005 confirmed in the carcasses of three barnyard ducks found dead on a farm in Ceamurlia-de-Jos, Tulcea County.
Two accounts of the Tulcea dog massacre e-mailed by people who claimed to be acquaintances of witnesses agreed that the dogs who survived rough capture and handling were thrown alive into a deep pit, covered with lime, and bulldozed under. As Tulcea was the scene of a municipal dog massacre in 2001, under a different political administration, the story sounded plausible.
Fundatia Daisy Hope founder Aura Maratas, of Bucharest, visited Tulcea to investigate on November 13. Maratas paid gypsy informants who claimed to be eyewitnesses to tell a similar story.
Maratas photographed the purported site, but the photos in several respects contradicted the story.
Two days of follow-up investigation in Tulcea by ROLDA cofounder Dana Costin and Romania Animal Rescue founder Nancy Janes on November 26-27 found no evidence that any such dog massacre ever occurred.
But potentially infected poultry were killed by similar methods south of Tulcea. On November 28 Romanian Agriculture Minister Gheorghe Flutur fired local officials who burned alive many of 15,000 turkeys who were killed on infected farm near Scarlatesti.
Realitatea TV video of the killing "showed veterinarians in white medical suits breaking the necks of poultry before throwing them into a fire burning in a ditch. Some of the birds were still alive and could be seen struggling, their wings in flames, in a vain attempt to escape," reported Agence France-Presse.
First identified in Hong Kong after three children died from it in 1996, H5N1 spread rapidly throughout Southeast Asia beginning in mid-2003. Nearly 70 people have succumbed to H5N1 since then, almost all of them poultry workers, cockfighters, or residents of homes shared with live fowl.
More than 100 million chickens, ducks, geese, and other domestic birds have been killed by gassing, neck-breaking, and/or being buried or burned alive in unsuccessful “stamping out” exercises. Vaccination is increasingly believed to be the only effective method of protecting domestic flocks from H5N1 transmission, despite the difficulty of distinguishing birds who carry the disease from birds who have developed antibodies from being vaccinated.
Chinese national chief veterinarian Jia Youling on November 15 announced that “China is trying to vaccinate all poultry nationwide.” After experiencing just two outbreaks nationwide in 2004, one in Tibet and one in Xinjiang, China suddenly had 10 outbreaks in 31 days after October 14, afflicting Inner Mongolia, two locations each in Xinjiang and Anhui, and additional sites in Hunan, Liaoning, and Hubei provinces.
Producing about 14 billion chickens per year, 21% of the global total, China has approximately 5.2 million chickens and other domestic fowl on farms at any given time.
H5N1 spread in fall 2005 to Russia, Turkey, Romania and Croatia––and was almost immediately invoked as an excuse to kill dogs in Balikesir, Turkey, where H5N1 first appeared in Turkey, even before the presence of the disease in birds was confirmed.
A subtext to the dog massacres in both Turkey and Romania is that both nations have unenforced legislation which purportedly restricts killing street dogs to situations in which public health is in imminent jeopardy.
A tiger, a clouded leopard, and several domestic cats all from one household who were fed diets consisting almost entirely of poultry killed by H5N1 contracted H5N1 in Thailand in early 2004. The tiger recovered. Except for those incidents, cats seem almost as resistant as dogs.
Yet cats have apparently also been wrongly targeted as potential H5N1 carriers, the Xinhua News Agency reported from Shenyang on November 12. Soon after H5N1 hit farms in Badaohao Township, Heishan County, Liaoning, 30 farm cats died between October 25 and November 9 of an unknown cause. The Liaoning provincial animal health department found no trace of H5N1 in either the dead cats or 82 live cats. Rather, the 30 dead cats were apparently poisoned.
In Indonesia, a nation which has been especially slow to respond to H5N1 outbreaks among poultry, avian flu researchers Chaerul Nidom of Airlangga University in Surabaya, East Java, and Wayan Teguh Wibawan of Bogor Institute of Agriculture on October 27 told Agence France-Presse that cats might be significant H5N1 carriers.
“We have suspected cases in isolated areas, far from any potential sources of contamination such as poultry or pig farms,” Wibawan claimed, “and on the other hand, we have almost no suspected human infection cases among workers in the poultry industries, including those hit by the bird flu.”
Nidom named cats, dogs, hamsters, rats, and mice as possible vectors. “The most likely candidates are cats,” Nidom asserted.
Responded World Health Organization representative for Indonesia Georg Petersen, “Worldwide, more than 80% of H5N1 infections can be traced back to contact with poultry. In some countries, there have been reports of animals such as tigers and cats being infected just as with pigs,” Peterson agreed, “but so far we have no report of anyone contracting the virus from animals other than poultry. There is so far no indication that animals other than poultry or pigs are sources of infections for humans.
“Studies are welcome,” Peterson conceded. “We certainly need to know more, but I think [the possibility of feline H5N1 transmission] is not something that is important at this point in time.”
The real problem in Indonesia, suggested retired Bogor Institute veterinary lecturer Marthen Malole, is that while “Chickens continue to die of the disease here and there, farmers are reluctant to report the deaths,” from fear of losing their livelihoods, “and the government certainly does not have the capability to monitor everything.”
Another plausible explanation is that Indonesia is believed to lead the world in illegal bird trafficking. The extent of the traffic––and of government involvement in it––was indicated on October 14 when five leading Indonesian conservation groups announced that they were ready to denounce to police three high-ranking officials of the Natural Resources Conservation Agency.
“The activists revealed that they have documentation taken with a hidden video camera that shows the three officials extorting a pet shop owner in North Jakarta, threatening to close the shop for selling protected animals if he does not pay up,” wrote Abdul Khalik of the Jakarta Post.
The coalition members also accused the three officials of selling confiscated wildlife. The alleged transaction captured on videotape involved 24 turtles, but the officials under surveillance also dealt in cockatoos, the coalition spokespersons said. ProFauna Indonesia chair Rosek Nursahid believes as many as 100,000 cockatoos per year are illegally trapped from the wild and exported or illegally sold at Indonesian markets.
Coalition members included Pro-Fauna Indonesia, the People’s Information Center, the Animal Advocacy Group, the Indonesian Society for Animal Welfare, and the Alliance for Indonesian Wildlife.
Bird-smuggling of various sorts is flagrant throughout most of Southeast Asia––and H5N1 often turns up among the bootlegged birds.
On October 20, for example, H5N1 was confirmed among eight of 276 dead birds who were confiscated six days earlier by the Taiwan Coast Guard, along with 1,037 live birds. A Panamian-registered ship allegedly brought the birds from Fuzhou, China, to Taichung harbor. The birds who survived the journey were killed on shipboard.
The illegal traffic reaches into Europe as well. While investigating how an orange-winged Amazon parrot came to be fatally infected with H5N1 at a quarantine station operated by Pegasus Birds Ltd., British undercover operatives learned that Pegasus owner Brett Hammond “secretly imported thousands of exotic birds using fake documents more than a decade ago, according to court records,” reported Jon Ungoed-Thomas and Steven Swinford of the London Times.
Jailed for a year for tax evasion, Hammond was nonetheless allowed to keep operating one of the 83 quarantine stations that are considered the first British line of defense against H5N1 and other zoonotic diseases.
“The center consists of a group of ramshackle sheds in the garden of a semi-detached house in South Fambridge, Essex,” Ungoed-Thomas and Swinford added. “It has emerged that 32 other birds died there before the parrot,” whose reported H5N1 demise was discovered on October 22, “and that some of those were also infected with avian flu.”
The case took an additional turn on November 14 when the National Emergency Epidemiology Group for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that the parrot didn’t have H5N1 after all. Instead, samples were mixed up by the testing laboratory. The H5N1 strain found at the center probably came from some of about 50 Asian finches who were housed there, notably a blue-headed pionus from Surinam and a mesia from Taiwan, found dead together on October 14.
Globally, politicians and mass media into mid-November 2005 continued to point toward migratory birds as vectors for H5N1. Indeed H5N1 has often been detected first among migratory birds, who are outdoors and therefore more easily exposed than most commercially produced poultry, typically raised entirely indoors in close confinement. However, infected wild birds have only been found in the mid-portions of their north/south range, far from where populations converge in northern latitudes.
“Wild birds appear to acquire the virus through contact with infected poultry or with facilities used by them,” pointed out BirdLife International spokesperson Ade Long. “H5N1 evolved in poultry from low pathogenicity avian influenza viruses probably acquired from wild birds,” Long conceded, but noted that “Conditions in poultry flocks, such as crowding and prolonged contact with feces, saliva and other bodily secretions, keep the viruses circulating as they evolve.
“A dramatic increase in intensive poultry production [in Southeast Asia],” Long continued, “is sometimes combined with poor hygiene and bio-security. “Domestic ducks are commonly turned out to feed in rice fields alongside waterbirds during the day, and confined with other poultry at night. Birds from different areas are brought together in networks of poultry markets, and are often transported hundreds of miles.
“Within Southeast Asia, movements of poultry and poultry products are known to have been involved in the spread of H5N1,” Long recited. “Outbreaks in China, Kazakhstan and southern Russia are connected by major road and rail routes.
“The transmission routes between outbreaks in Asia do not follow migratory flyways,” Long emphasized. Further, “Many of these outbreaks also occurred in summer, when birds are moulting and do not fly far.”
“Researchers in the U.S. and China have been monitoring wild birds for several years, looking for healthy birds carrying H5N1,” wrote Dennis Normile of Science. “So far, both searches have found nothing. But outbreaks among wildfowl in remote corners of China and Mongolia,” Normile argued, “where movements of domestic poultry have been ruled out as a cause, are forcing some to change their minds.”
However, overlooked in those cases––as ANIMAL PEOPLE pointed out to the membership of the International Society for Infectious diseases on August 27––is that wild bird fights are a frequent marketplace gambling pastime in these parts of Central Asia, as in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and nearby parts of Russia.
Held by threads, freshly captured wild songbirds are briefly pitted against each other, then released to avoid violating the Islamic prohibition on caging wild birds.
Wild bird fights often occur in the same pits as cockfights, in proximity to domestic poultry.
The pattern of H5N1 spread has been almost entirely from the east coast of the Asian mainland to the west. The few instances of eastward spread, to Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, have almost all been linked to illegal commerce in wild birds, gamecocks, and other smuggled domestic fowl.
The Thai Livestock Development Department has “set up 32 checkpoints nationwide to control movement of fowl,” Kultida Samabuddhi of the Bangkok Post reported on October 31, “but owners of fighting cocks are hiding the birds in cars, which are beyond the officers’ ability to interdict.”
Illegal commerce in ineffective homebrewed vaccines is also a factor in H5N1 transmission.
“Drug salesmen who smuggled out an unlicensed vaccine still being tested and sold it on the market have been blamed for the massive outbreak of bird flu in Liaoning province,” China, South China Morning Post Beijing correspondent Josephina Ma disclosed on November 12.
Citing an earlier report published by China Business News, Ma wrote that a vaccine bootlegged into use while still undergoing clinical tests “was the culprit for the rapid spread of the disease among 18 villages in Liaoning, where more than three million birds have been culled. Farmers in infected areas said they had already vaccinated their poultry against H5N1,” Ma continued, “but large numbers still died. Many farmers in Heishan county had used a vaccine produced by Inner Mongolia Jingyu Group, a Shanghai company, which offered little protection against the deadly disease.
“China Business News said the company was given special approval to produce the vaccine last year by the Ministry of Agriculture,” Ma wrote, “due to the pressing demand for H5N1 vaccines, but the vaccine was intended for testing in infected areas exclusively, and it was not supposed to be sold.
“After the outbreak,” Ma added, “the company’s licence to produce veterinary medicine was suspended and the firm admitted some of the vaccine was sold to Heishan, although it said the amount was small.”
Similar cases have occurred throughout Southeast Asia, typically involving smuggled Chinese products.
“Raisers of fighting cocks are allegedly the major buyers of Chinese-made bird flu vaccines for birds, which are being smuggled through the border town of Chiang Saen in Chiang Rai province,” charged Teerawat Khamthit of the Bangkok Post on October 30. Chiang Saen customs official Patcharadit Sinsawat told Teerawat Khamthit that 1,377 bottles of avian flu vaccines had been seized at his port, from five cargos, since June 2005.
Problems have reportedly also developed in connection with hastily produced batches of Tamiflu, one of the few antiviral drugs that is believed to be generally effective against H5N1, and possibly with illicitly produced and distributed generic knockoffs.
The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in November reiterated an earlier warning that Tamiflu may induce strange behavior, citing the cases of two teenagers who took it. One, a 17-year-old high school student, jumped in front of a truck after taking Tamiflu in February 2004, according to the newspaper Mainichi Shimbun and the Kyodo News. The other teenager either fell or jumped from the ninth floor of his apartment building in February 2005.
Tamiflu in Japan carries a label warning that side effects might include abnormal behavior and hallucinations. ––M.C.
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.|
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Machipongo, VA 23405-0150