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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les volailles mises à l’abri du virus

by By Vincent Defait

H5N1 virus: Birds put out of harm’s way

Translated by Laura Wheeler

Translated Tuesday 21 February 2006, by Laura

Bird flu: Like other European countries, France decided to confine its poultry yesterday - but the real causes of the virus’ propagation remain obscure.

Hide the poultry... The French agency for the safety and hygiene of food (AFSSA), recommended on Tuesday a reinforcement of protectionary measures for poultry because of an “increased risk of contamination” by the H5N1 bird flu virus.
In recent weeks, the virus spread across national boundaries and is travelling at top speed. The message was heard by the French government and Jacques Chirac, who is currently juggling the embarrassing Clemenceau aircraft carrier affair.
Thus, the Prime Minister announced, yesterday, at the close of an inter-ministerial meeting, that all poultry must be confined until further notice. Furthermore, all ducks and geese being raised in the southwest regions of France (Landes, Loire-Atlantique and Vendée), must be vaccinated.
These measures pre-suppose that the virus is primarily airborne. For AFSSA specialists who have remained quite reserved on this point up to now, migrating birds that are expected to arrive in France in the near future, may constitute a serious channel of contamination. However, scientists are not in agreement on this subject.

Number one suspect: Migrating birds
"We are missing basic information regarding the length of time that certain species might carry [the virus]", admitted François Roger, head of the epidemiology and ecology unit at the Center for International Cooperation (CIRAD). "But increasingly, it looks like there’s a risk of dissemination over long distances", he added.
It first appeared in Asia, where it has become widespread since the end of 2003. Then it criss-crossed Russia in 2005, then Turkey, and part of Eastern Europe, before being detected in Nigeria - an itinerary quite similar to certain migratory paths.
We seem to be closing in on the guilty party... The World Health Organisation believes that "the death in late April 2005 of more than 6000 migratory birds that were infected by the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus in the natural reserve of Lake Qinhai in China", is significant.
Better yet, in early February, an international team of scientists were able to isolate strains of the feared virus on healthy ducks living around Chinese lakes. Wild fowl would thus seem to be the culprit.

Second suspect: business
« If migratory birds really played an important role in spreading the virus, the virus would have been seen in India, Pakistan and Eastern Africa”, according to Michel Gauthier-Clerc, a veterinarian in the biological observatory tower of Valat in Camargue. “I don’t mean to deny the fact that wild birds may be spreading the virus, said the scientist. But up to now, the east-west spread of the virus corresponds to roadmaps”. Who is right?
Yet another factor can be taken into consideration: business deals, both legal and illegal... The fact that the virus has appeared in Nigeria, hundreds of miles from typical migratory paths, would seem to reinforce this idea. As would the detection of the pathogenic agent on swans in Austria and in Germany, several weeks prior to the arrival of the wild birds in Europe. From this point of view, confining poultry would be open to discussion, and tightened border controls highly recommended. Above all, the economic element takes on a whole new dimension.

High stakes for France
As the number one European poultry exporter, the stakes are very high for France. Nevertheless, the country has taken efficient protective measures. On the contrary, the problem could be disastrous in Africa. As one veterinarian working in Chad put it, "there is a complete lack of basic infrastructures” here. “We find ourselves in the same situation as for any other problems linked to economic development", he continued.
The veterinarian has in-depth knowledge of rural issues in Southern countries. For him, the outcome is always the same: "Big business in the capital will pull through this crisis, but village farmers will be badly burnt".


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