Experts on Wednesday probed the unusual deaths of 14 birds in the southern Bahamas amid fears the deadly H5N1 bird-flu virus strain had reached the Americas.
In Europe, meanwhile, Swiss officials confirmed the Alpine nation’s first case of the disease’s highly pathogenic strain that can kill humans, while the world’s top health agencies played down the death of a German cat from H5N1.
Ten flamingos, three roseate spoonbills and a cormorant were found dead in a wildlife reserve on the Bahamas island of Great Inagua, which has a population of about 50 000 flamingos and a large lake popular with migrating birds.
”It is definitely an unusually high number. Normally you don’t find wild birds dropping out and dying,” said Eric Carey, director of Parks and Science for the Bahamas National Trust, which runs the Inagua National Park.
He said, however ”any number of things”, including poisoning or weather, could have caused the deaths. ”We remain optimistic it is related to one of these factors rather than the anticipated speculation of bird flu or some other terrible disease,” he said.
Bahamian agriculture ministry director Simeon Pinder also stressed there was no indication at this stage as to what killed the birds.
To date, the western hemisphere has had no confirmed case of H5N1 bird flu, which has spread from Asia to Europe, Africa and parts of the Middle East, killing more than 90 people since it surfaced in 2003.
All had caught the disease from handling domestic fowl believed infected by migrating birds, but scientists fear that if the virus mutates to become transmissible between humans, a pandemic could occur, resulting in millions of deaths.
Experts in the Bahamas, including the government’s chief veterinary officer and public health officials, were on Inagua on Wednesday to investigate the bird deaths.
Carey said they would collect samples for testing on New Providence Island, where the capital, Nassau, is located, and possibly in the United States.
He admitted there is concern over the fact Inagua is a major transit point for migratory birds on their way north to the US, 850km away. While the affected birds are not migratory, they do come into contact with migrating geese and ducks.
But Carey said that Inagua’s 1 000 human residents live at a safe distance from the national park, located about 25km from the nearest population centre.
Authorities have suspended tours of the park until the cause for the bird deaths can be determined, he said.
Meanwhile, US authorities announced on Wednesday they had purchased 14,15-million more doses of antiviral drugs, nearly quadrupling to 19,65-million a stockpile to be distributed if a pandemic is believed to be imminent.
The United Nations World Tourism Agency for its part said it is preparing for an eventual pandemic of bird flu in humans to try to minimise its impact on the tourism industry.
But World Tourism Agency head Francesco Frangialli stressed: ”For the moment there is no reason to not travel to any country in the world, provided people observe the recommendations of health and veterinary authorities.”
In Switzerland, test results from a wild duck found a week ago near Lake Geneva revealed the presence of the H5N1 strain, the federal veterinary office said, following confirmation from the European Union’s reference laboratory in Weybridge, England.
In Geneva, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said in the wake of the German cat death that the risk of people contracting bird flu from felines appears to be remote.
WHO spokesperson Dick Thompson added: ”You have to put this in perspective: there have been 180-million birds that have been killed because of this disease and yet we’ve identified fewer than 200 human cases.
”So the risk from direct exposure to any animal, and we know that these animals are infected, is vanishingly small.”
Experiments nearly two years ago had already shown that cats could be infected with H5N1, mainly from eating infected raw chicken or direct inoculation, and pass it on to other cats.
The cat found dead on the Baltic Sea island of Ruegen, where dozens of wild birds have fallen victim to bird flu, is the first known case of a mammal in Europe infected with H5N1.
The discovery caused alarm in Germany, with the government ordering cat owners in the region to keep their pets locked up at home.
In Paris, the World Organisation for Animal Health, which monitors the veterinary side of the bird-flu scare, noted that in 2004 more than 40 tigers died at a zoo in Bangkok after being fed H5N1-infected chickens, and there had also been cases of infection among domestic cats in Asia.
But it stressed that so far avian flu ”has fundamentally remained a bird disease”. — Sapa-AFP