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Bird flu: Nothing to sneeze at

Bird flu: Nothing to sneeze at

Winter is flu season, and more recently, it is becoming bird flu season. And that is reason for pause. Bird flu or avian flu is a serious disease that spreads easily in many versions and can lead to death in some cases, and authorities in Taiwan are advised to do everything they can to keep it out of local bird populations.

That will not be easy. Birds of a feather flock together, the saying goes, and the earliest incidences of bird flu – in birds at first, later in humans as viruses adapted – were in places like southern China, where families with courtyards would tie a few ducks or geese to a stake and fatten them up during the winter. Birds migrating from colder climes to the north spotted their domestic cousins staked in courtyards below with a pan of grain and water, and would drop down to partake. Eventually some of these migratory birds brought viruses from breeding grounds up north, and avian flu made its presence known in areas along the birds’ flight paths.

Most cases of avian flu among humans result either from handling dead infected birds or from contact with infected fluids – anything from blood to urine to sputum. And while most wild birds mainly carry milder forms of avian flu, when domesticated birds such as chickens or ducks are infected the disease can become much more dangerous. Domestic birds are usually raised in crowded conditions and are in close contact for extended periods of time. The threat becomes even more serious when pens are not cleaned regularly.

Although avian flu is more likely to spread when infected domestic fowl are transported between different areas, interaction with wild birds and migrating fowl is still a source of new infections and new strains of a virus. Thus it is important that bird farmers be constantly alert to ensure their flocks are not exposed to birds from the outside.
Pigeons are not known to have contracted or spread the avian flu virus, despite signs in parks sporting drawings of pigeons and warnings not to feed birds. Statistics compiled during the SARS scare in the early 2000s indicated that more than 80% of affected bird populations were chickens and other farm birds, while the remainder consisted of wild birds.

One reason avian flu is so insidious is that it is difficult to detect until it mutates into a deadly form. Often when a virus is transmitted from one animal to another the carrier exhibits minor symptoms that are easily overlooked. With domestication of chickens and waterfowl, however, humans have created species subtypes that can catch avian flu viruses adapted to waterfowl. These can rapidly mutate into forms that kill over 90% of a flock in days, then spread to other flocks where they kill 90% of the birds. The only way to stop the spread of the disease in such cases is killing every domestic bird in the area.

For the average person, common sense is the best protection against infection from avian flu. Personal hygiene is naturally a given, and wearing a face mask when one is in close contact with another person who may be showing symptoms of a cold or flu. Avoid unnecessary contact with poultry or wild birds, and in the kitchen, wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw poultry and eggs; clean cutting boards and other utensils with soap and hot water to keep raw poultry from contaminating other foods; and cook poultry products including eggs thoroughly. Eggs should be cooked until whites and yolks are firm.

The government must continue current operations to contain the avian flu outbreak through culling of animal populations in infected areas and disinfection of places where contamination is likely to occur.

Vaccination should also be considered as a supplementary measure in controlling outbreaks. Vaccination offers several advantages. Vaccinated animals are less susceptible to infection, and conversely, higher doses of a virus are necessary to infect vaccinated birds. In addition, birds that have been vaccinated shed less viruses, meaning less contamination of the birds’ environment and less risk of infection to humans. Used strategically, vaccination complements other anti-infection operations in limiting the spread of avian flu viruses.

The Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine (BAPHIQ) announced Monday that the number of regions thought to be affected by avian flu stood at five including Yunlin, Chiayi, Pingtung and Changhua counties and the Greater Tainan area. Health authorities in areas farther north are already watching for signs among poultry populations, with local leaders pledging the disease will not be allowed into their districts.

BAPHIQ Director-General Chang Su-san said Monday the current avian influenza outbreak has so far affected only waterfowl, with geese accounting for the vast majority of casualties. “Few fatalities have been reported among ducks,” she said, explaining that “the effect H5N2 has on ducks is that it greatly reduces their egg yields to virtually zero.”

Chang said inadequate protective measures at feeding sites on affected farms were likely a factor in the latest outbreak. She urged poultry farmers to step up preventive efforts by setting up nets around their facilities, especially around feeding sites.

“In the future, farm owners who do not cover their facilities with nets and fail to make the necessary improvements after a given period of time will not be compensated in the event of an avian influenza outbreak,” she warned.

Hopefully the government learned a few lessons in the outbreaks of avian flu in 2012 in Taiwan. Officials at several government agencies were slow in responding to reports of problems with bird populations, and there were stories involving cover-ups by officials who failed to act in time to stop the spread of the disease.

One Internet user in the US notes a sign posted outside his doctor's door in the US a few years ago during an avian flu outbreak in Asia: "If you have been to Taiwan or Vietnam in the last 30 days, do not enter. Call first for instructions." That is an image of Taiwan that Taiwan does not need, and the government and the people must do all they can to stop avian flu. The culling has already started, and hopefully the government will act decisively to halt further spread of the disease.

Updated : 2021-09-27 14:35 GMT+08:00