As you read this article today, you are perhaps asking yourself: Why aren’t half of us dead from bird flu?
After all, hadn’t renowned flu hunter Robert Webster remarked in 2006, "Society just can't accept the idea that 50 percent of the population could die… I'm sorry if I'm making people a little frightened, but I feel it's my role." And just last month, a feverish Guangdong boy visited Hong Kong for medical checks, and tested positive for bird flu, while two days ago came news that some bird flu strains may be just three mutations away from a pandemic virus..
For years, we’ve been haunted by the spectre of bird flu, which was first known to kill humans here in Hong Kong, in 1997. That spring, 4500 chickens died on three Hong Kong farms, and scientists who investigated found a new strain of H5N1 avian influenza – which has since become known as “bird flu”. In May, a dying three-year old boy was found to be infected with the same flu, which killed five more people in Hong Kong during the year.
Hong Kong called in international experts. They included Robert Webster, whose research had revealed birds may carry flu viruses linked to those that threaten people. He led researchers who found bird flu in poultry markets, and over a million chickens were slaughtered, supposedly halting the onset of a global flu pandemic.
Bird flu spreads and migratory birds blamed
But of course, this was not the end of bird flu. In May 2001, there was a further outbreak in Hong Kong, and the government ordered the slaughter of all birds in local poultry farms. The next year, bird flu returned, affecting poultry but also killing ducks, geese and egrets in Kowloon Park and Penfold Park. Swiftly, migratory birds were blamed for bringing the disease – even though most victims in both parks were captive waterfowl, and the few wild birds were egrets that likely lived there year-round.
Bird flu hit the big time in 2003 and 2004, spreading widely in East Asia, from Japan south to Indonesia. There were more human infections and deaths. More dead wild birds were found to have been infected with bird flu – and migratory birds were widely fingered as the major carriers. As a birdwatcher who had become fascinated by the nightmarish potential of a flu pandemic, I began seeking information whilst trying to show the dates and locations of the bird flu outbreaks were very different to bird migration patterns.
Poultry disease specialist Dr Carol Cardona felt spread by humans was more likely, and emailed me saying, “This particular variant is unusual both for the fact that it can infect humans but also because it can make wild birds, especially ducks, sick… in my experience sick and dead ducks don't fly far.” This seemed commonsense, yet commonsense was all too lacking with bird flu.
Hong Kong Bird Watching Society chairman Cheung Ho-fai said migratory birds from Panyu are likely to carry the virus to the territory, although previous H5N1 cases in Hong Kong had been found to be unrelated to migratory birds.
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