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Experts Call for Avian Flu Early Warning System


A meeting on the Convention on Migratory Species has opened in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, with a call for the establishment of an avian flu early warning system.

Experts are in Nairobi this week to discuss creating an early warning system to alert authorities across continents about bird migration patterns.

They say such warnings could help prevent the spread of diseases, such as a deadly strain of avian flu, which has claimed the lives of millions of birds and at least 60 people in Asia. The virus has been found recently in Turkey, Russia and Romania, and experts believe migratory birds are carrying the virus and infecting local poultry populations.

Marco Barbieri, scientific and technical officer with the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species and Wild Animals, outlines the benefits of creating such a system.

"The system basically aims at knowing in detail, in advance, the migratory path of the species that might be involved," he said. "This is what would allow sufficiently accurate risk assessment. It would even be more helpful in case of an outbreak."

Mr. Barbieri says the early warning system would involve compiling information, including detailed maps of the migration patterns of individual species of birds. He says there is considerable information available, but it is scattered in different institutions and research centers.

The initiative comes in the wake of the outbreak of the deadly H5N1 avian flu virus in Southeast Asia, where millions of birds have been killed to prevent the spread of the virus. But experts say killing birds is not the solution to stopping the spread of the virus.

"We are opposed to any notion of culling of wild birds in response to this. That's not a realistic way of dealing with the risk," said Jim Knight, the British biodiversity minister. "It's about separation of infected wild birds, if that is the transmission route from poultry."

The experts say, although avian flu has not come to Africa, it would be more difficult to contain, because bird populations there are more scattered.

"The situation in Africa is a bit different from the other continents like, for example, Asia, where you have big concentrations of poultry. We dont have it in Africa," noted Bert Lenten, executive secretary for the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds. "That makes it much more complicated in Africa, because, if the outbreak takes place in smaller groups of poultry, it's much more difficult to control it."

The participants, drawn from Wetlands International, Birdlife International, the U.N. Enviornmental Protection Agency and International Wildlife, among others, will spend the week discussing the details of implementing an early warning pilot program, initially funded by the United Nations.

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