Migratory birds expert Taej Mundkur on bird flu

Taej Mundkur, an expert on migratory birds, tells Padmaparna Ghosh that bird flu spreads through respiratory route , and not just the faecal route. Mundkur is on the scientific committee of bird flu of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Published: Monday 31 July 2006

The High-Security Animal Disease Laboratory (HSADl) in Bhopal claims its genetic analysis of bird flu strains reveals that strains of the disease in India are similar to those found amongst birds in Qinghai Lake, China. HSADL also incriminates migratory birds from Europe for the flu outbreaks in India. How reasonable is this hypothesis?

It's very unlikely that migratory birds caused the recent bird flu outbreak in Jalgaon and Nandagaon. It takes European migratory birds about two seasons to make it to India, so even if we accept that these birds carry the dreaded virus, bird flu couldn't have struck India before the coming winter.

Moreover, if we examine the wetland areas and the migratory birds spotted around the outbreak sites, the migratory bird theory seems highly improbable. Species such as the cormorants and the bar-headed geese, which are most likely carriers, are mostly seen in India in the Brahmaputra basin and some parts of Karnataka. But as of now, there haven't been any sightings in Maharashtra.

The point on the Qinghai Lake strain, however, is no surprise. That could be the most probable strain.

What is the status of Indian testing laboratories and techniques compared to what is standardised the world over?

Indian regional laboratories and the hsadl are doing very well. In fact, looking at the huge number of samples they have to test every day, the Indian laboratories have been doing more than adequate job. However, fao's sub-regional laboratory for the South Asian region is in Pakistan and it's really hard to get Indian labs to send samples to Pakistan for further testing.

The last FAO meeting on bird flu in Rome absolved migratory birds for culpability for bird flu. What were its other significant outcomes?

Many facets of bird flu have not been investigated, mostly because of the lack of consistent funds. But one crucial finding was that the virus spreads more through the respiratory route and not faecal route as believed earlier. Most sample-testing till now was on faecal specimens. We might have been looking at the wrong end of the bird. We need to look at both the faecal and respiratory routes. The second significant -- and scarier -- finding has been that the virus can survive in brackish water, and not just in wetlands and fresh water. This hugely widens the playground of this pathogen. The other significant outcome of the meet, of course, was recognising avian influenza as a poultry disease and not a bird migration issue.

This last outcome you mention is a product of large-scale testing of migratory birds in Africa. Are similar tests on the anvil for other areas as well?

We hope to extend the programme to south and southeast Asia. But of course, it all depends if we can source funds for it.

Avian influenza keeps flaring repeatedly in various parts of the world. There is now a spate of human infections in Indonesia. How realistic is the fear of a pandemic?

Bird flu will come back every season, every year. Apart from poultry and wild bird trade, another factor involved is the untracked release of birds. Birds are caught at one place, transported to another and then are released in completely unknown and new areas. Such traffic is perfect for the spread of the disease and we really don't know much about it.

A pandemic is, of course, a distinct possibility. But countries are much better prepared now, though gaps still exist. For instance, Maldives doesn't have a single ornithologist or a chief veterinarian but the networking and surveillance system on the islands is phenomenal. They are running an excellent awareness programme for bird flu as well.

How big has been the disease's toll on bird species?

The effects have been quite disastrous. For example, there has been a five per cent decrease in the bar-headed goose population. The black-necked crane is also under threat. This is a rare species: only 20 pairs exist in Ladakh and there are about 2,500 of these worldwide.

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