Russian Roulette with Bird Flu

As of February 23, 2006, the bird flu virus has been reported in 34 countries. Of the 170 humans infected by H5N1 92 have died. The virus has been reported in Germany, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Cambodia, China, The Republic of Korea, Croatia, Egypt, Slovakia, France, Geogia, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Khazahkstan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Romania, Russia, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine and Vietnam. The first outbreak of bird flu in the European Union has been confirmed in France, the major bird producer in Europe. In India half a million birds have been destroyed.

The Pan-American Health Organization says that concerns that H5N1 reach the Americas is justified, although it points out that there is a low risk of the sickness among human beings, “unless a new strain of the virus appears that can be easily transmitted among people”. Should this mutation of the virus occur, they warn, “once it is established that this strain is being transmitted among the general population of a country, its global propagation will be rapid and inevitable”. In the event of a pandemic the number of human victims will be between 2 and 100 million. The number of birds who will be killed is incalculable. Since H5N1 erupted in Asia more than 140 million birds have died or have been killed due to the avian flu epidemic since 2003.

Every government has the responsibility to warn the public without creating panic, and to convince it to take precautionary measures as far as possible to avoid the outbreak of a catastrophic situation. On February, 24 nine Mexican organizations noted for their defense of the environment, bio-diversity and the well-being of mankind, published a letter sent to President Vicente Fox in which they expressed their concern about the possible entry and spread of avian flu in Mexico. They emphasized the urgent necessity to close down completely the importation of wild birds, since according to the National Wildlife Health Center in the United States, more than 80 species are carriers of the H5N1 virus. The environmentalists make it known that an average of 80 thousand wild birds are imported into Mexico annually, and that, in 2003 alone, 165 thousand were imported from all over the world. The organizations note that the trafficking in wild birds into Mexico, in addition to European, Asian and American countries, also includes tens of thousands that come from African countries like Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Mali, Liberia, the Congo, Uganda and South Africa, a country where it is recommended that the population to avoid markets where birds from countries close to Nigeria are sold.

The Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) has declared its intention to stop the importation of wild birds from those countries where the virus has been recorded, without specifying precisely which countries these are, nor when they will take this action. However, as the signers of the letter indicate, no real control over the importation of wild birds into Mexico exists, and the SEMARNAT proposal does not cover the possible arrival of birds carrying the virus from countries where its presence has not yet been detected. Besides, due to the triangulation of the illegal trafficking of birds their real provenance is often unknown.

Defenders of Wildlife Of Mexico, Teyeliz, Comarino, Greenpeace Mexico, Mexican Center of Environmental Law, Grupo Ecologista de Mayab, the Group of One Hundred International, Marea Azul and the International Fund for the Protection of Animals and their Habitat propose to President Fox that, as a matter of urgency, he take the following measures: “prohibit the importation of all species of wild birds; increase efforts to inspect cargoes of legal and illegal birds in ports, airports, frontiers, highways, railways, etc.; avoid the killing of wild birds as a means of controlling avian flu; isolate wild birds in captivity whether they be national or exotic; and to inform and educate the public in general about risks associated with working with or caring for wild birds”.

Juan Carlos Cantu of the Defenders of Wildlife warns, “Mexico is playing Russian roulette with the avian flu, and some day, among the tens of thousands imported for the domestic pet market, a cargo of infected birds will enter”. It is also worth remembering, as the ornithologist Manual Grosselet points out, there are 75 species of migratory birds that have populations shared between America and Asia, mainly beach birds and ducks, the ring-neck goose for example, which in no way means that they have to be killed.

What is more urgent, preventing the entry of avian flu into Mexico, thereby protecting the public health, the poultry breeding industry, and the more than one thousand species of birds registered in the country, or to go on allowing the legal and illegal trafficking of wild birds to supply the market for pets?