A paper published today in the British Ornithologists' Union journal, Ibis, says that human shipping of poultry is to blame for the spread of the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus H5N1, not the migratory movements of wild birds. In addition, say French ecologists Michel Gauthier-Clerc, Camille Lebarbenchon, and Frédéric Thomas, wild birds have not been dying en masse in breeding areas and along migration routes, as would be expected if they carried the virus commonly.
Three years ago, scientists, public-health agencies, and the media started blaming migratory birds for the spread of H5N1 and have been saying that it's just a matter of time before birds carry the disease across the Bering Sea into Alaska. If that happened, it wouldn't be hard to imagine the scenario that ABC-TV cooked up last May. Or the one that CNN described just last week.
The Ibis paper is the latest piece of evidence that migratory birds have been scapegoats for the dispersal of H5N1. Two weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that transmission via Alaska is unlikely. A seven-year study of
Last October, Smithsonian Institution ornithologist John Rappole disputed the role of migratory birds in the spread of H5N1 in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. And for the better part of 18 months, about the time we started covering
avian poultry influenza, BirdLife International has maintained a comprehensive resource debunking conventional wisdom. — M.M.