Birds back in Europe without flu virus

Fears of spread from Africa are allayed

May 11, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ROME --Defying the dire predictions of health officials, the flocks of migratory birds that flew south to Africa last fall, then back over Europe in recent weeks did not carry the deadly bird flu virus or spread it during their annual journey, scientists have concluded.

International health officials had feared that the disease would spread to Africa during the southward migration and return to Europe with a vengeance during the reverse migration this spring. That has not happened, which is a significant finding for Europe because it is far easier to monitor a virus that exists domestically on farms but not in the wild.

"It is quiet now in terms of cases, which is contrary to what many people had expected," said Ward Hagemeijer, a bird flu specialist with Wetlands International, an environmental group based in the Netherlands that studies migratory birds.

In thousands of samples collected in Africa over the winter, the bird flu virus, H5N1, was not detected in any wild birds, health officials and scientists said. In Europe, a few cases have been detected in wild birds since April 1, at the height of the migration north.

The number of cases in Europe has fallen off so steeply since February, when dozens of new cases were found daily, that specialists contend the northward spring migration played no role.

The flu was found in one grebe in Denmark on April 28 - the last case discovered - and in a falcon in Germany and a few swans in France, said the World Organization for Animal Health, based in Paris.

In response to the good news, agriculture officials in many European countries are lifting restrictions designed to protect poultry from infected wild birds.

In the first week of May, the Netherlands and Switzerland rescinded requirements that poultry be kept indoors. Austria has loosened similar regulations, and France is considering doing so.

The cases in Europe in February were attributed to infected wild birds that traveled west to avoid severe cold in Russia and Central Asia but apparently never carried the virus to Africa.

The international scientists who had issued the earlier warnings are perplexed, unsure whether their precautions - such as intensive surveillance and eliminating contact between poultry and wild birds - helped defuse a time bomb or whether nature granted a reprieve.

"Is it like Y2K, where also nothing happened?" asked Juan Lubroth, a senior veterinary official at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, referring to the expected computer failures that did not materialize as 1999 turned to 2000. "Perhaps it is because it was not as bad as we feared, or perhaps it is because people took the right measures."

The lack of cases in wild birds in Europe underscores how little is understood about the virus, he and others said. And scientists warn that it could return to Europe.

"Maybe we will be lucky and this virus will just die out in the wild," Lubroth said. "But maybe it will come back strong next year. We just don't have the answers."

The feared H5N1 bird flu virus does not spread easily among humans, although scientists are worried that it might acquire that ability and set off a worldwide pandemic. The less bird flu is present in nature and domestically on farms, the less likely it is for such an evolution to occur, they say.

Worldwide, bird flu has killed about 200 humans, almost all of whom were in extremely close contact with sick birds.

Specialists from Wetlands International, who were deputized by the Food and Agriculture Organization, sampled 7,500 African wild birds over the winter in a search for the disease. They found no H5N1, Hagemeijer said, so it is not surprising that it did not return to Europe with the spring migration.

H5N1 is the most deadly of a large family of bird flu viruses, most of which produce minor illness in birds.

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