Restoration of Wetlands Key to Reducing Future Threats of Avian Flu

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Investments in ‘Ecosystem’ Health Likely to Pay Dividends in War Against Infectious Diseases

Nairobi, 11 April 2006 – Restoring tens of thousands of lost and degraded wetlands could go a long way towards reducing the threat of avian flu pandemics a new report today says.

The loss of wetlands around the globe 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.

Close contact of wild birds and poultry species is believed to be a major cause behind the spread of avian influenza. Clearing intensive poultry rearing units from the ‘flyways’ of migratory birds would also be prudent. “Intensive poultry operations along migratory wild bird routes are incompatible with protecting the health of ecosystems that birds depend upon. They also increase the risks of transfer of pathogens between migrating birds and domestic fowl,” says the study.

The report has been commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) from a team led by leading Canadian academic Dr David Rapport. It focuses on the environmental factors underpinning the re-emergence of old diseases and which are likely to be triggering the rise of new ones like highly virulent avian influenza or H5N1.

The report’s preliminary findings, announced at a scientific seminar on avian influenza taking place at UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi, concludes that current “heroic efforts” focusing on “isolation, quarantine, culls and medications” are likely to be quick fixes offering limited short term benefits. It recommends that governments, the United Nations and public health experts back environmental measures in order to counter the spread of diseases like H5N1 over the medium and long term. 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. […]

Shafqat Kakakhel, UNEP’s Deputy Executive Director and Officer in Charge, said: “These thought-provoking findings will need to be looked at in detail by all those involved in fighting current and future threatened pandemics. However, 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”. He said: “There are numerous pressing reasons for conserving and restoring degraded ecosystems like wetlands”.

The services they provide for humankind are vital and of great economic importance. Wetlands are natural water storage features, they filter pollution, help absorb floods and are home to numerous species including fish. “Their ability to disperse and keep wild birds away from domestic ones is now yet another compelling argument for conserving and rehabilitating them,” added Mr Kakakhel. […]

The report also comes in the wake of an expert workshop held in Curitiba. Brazil organized by the UNEP Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). […]The CBD workshop also concluded that over 80 per cent of known bird species, including migratory and non migratory ones may also be at risk with members of the crow family and vultures of particular concern. The experts are also worried that the impact of the highly virulent virus may extend far beyond direct infection of species, including on livelihoods and trade as countries take measures to combat the problem.

Culling of poultry, especially in developing countries where chicken is a key source of protein, may lead to local people turning to ‘bushmeat’ as an alternative. This may put new and unacceptable pressure on a wide range of wild living creatures from wild pigs up to endangered species like chimpanzees, gorillas and other great apes. The CBD experts also expressed concern over the development of a genetic mono- culture of domestic poultry claiming that this makes many domestic fowl less disease resistant.

In late 2005, more than 120 governments endorsed resolutions at a meeting of three key wildlife treaties—AEWA, CMS and the wetlands treaty Ramsar—which recommend strengthening biosecurity in farming; improving global surveillance and research on avian influenza; developing early warning systems and avoiding ineffective or counter-productive ‘quick fixes’ such as culling migratory birds or destroying their wetland habitats.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

News Release no24


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