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Wetlands restoration key to slashing bird flu

Massive wetlands restoration key to slashing future threats of bird flu – UN report

Restoring tens of thousands of lost and degraded wetlands around the world could go a long way towards reducing the threat of bird flu pandemics by keeping disease-carrying wild birds away from infecting domestic poultry, according to a United Nations report released today.

“What this research underlines is that the link between a healthy environment and disease prevention is no marginal topic, but an important component in public health policy particularly in a globalized world,” UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Deputy Executive Director Shafqat Kakakhel said.

The report, commissioned by UNEP from a team led by Canadian academic David Rapport, recommends that governments, the UN and public health experts back environmental measures to counter the spread of diseases like the H5N1 bird flu virus over the medium and long term.

The loss of wetlands is forcing many wild birds onto alternative sites like farm ponds and paddy fields, bringing them into direct contact with chickens, ducks, geese, and other domesticated fowl - believed to be a major cause behind the spread of bird flu out of South and Eastern Asia to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

Clearing intensive poultry rearing units from the ‘flyways’ of migratory birds would also be prudent, the report said.

More than 200 million domestic birds have died from the virus or through culling in the current outbreak that began over two years ago. There have been 192 human cases, 109 of them fatal, ascribed to contact with infected birds, but experts fear H5N1 could mutate, gaining the ability to pass from person to person and in a worst case scenario unleashing a deadly human pandemic.

The report focuses on environmental factors underpinning the re-emergence of old diseases and likely to be triggering the rise of new ones like H5N1.

Its preliminary findings, announced at a scientific seminar on avian influenza taking place at UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, concludes that current “heroic efforts” focusing on “isolation, quarantine, culls and medications” are likely to be quick fixes offering limited short term benefits.

Other possibly more controversial suggestions, aimed at reducing contact between wild birds and poultry, include shifting livestock production away from humans and other mammals such as pigs. The report accepts that in some parts of the world, like South East Asia, separating poultry from people is at odds with generational cultural traditions and practices.

“As unpalatable as this may be, where it is clearly in the interest of preventing future pandemics with potentially catastrophic global effects, it can and should be undertaken,” said Mr. Rapport, Honorary Professor of the Ecoystem Health Programme, Faculty of Medicine, University of Western Ontario.

Mr. Kakakhel said there were numerous pressing reasons for conserving and restoring degraded ecosystems like wetlands, whose services to humankind are vital, including the natural storage of natural water, filtering pollution and absorbing floods.

“Their ability to disperse and keep wild birds away from domestic ones is now yet another compelling argument for conserving and rehabilitating them,” he added.

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