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Avian Influenza and Birdwatchers
4 November 2005
There is a small possibility that some wild birds may be affected by the highly pathogenic
form of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza in the UK this winter. If you come across a
suspicious die-off of wild birds please:
• Do not touch them.
• Contact the Government Helpline immediately.
Call 08459 335577 in England, Scotland and Wales
Call 02890 524999 in Northern Ireland
Over the last few months, many birdwatchers will have become aware of considerable
media interest in the subject of avian influenza or 'bird flu', following outbreaks in central
Asia, Russia and the Black Sea region of the highly pathogenic strain of the virus – H5N1 –
which developed within poultry.
Representatives of BTO, WWT, RSPB and JNCC have been involved in discussions with the
relevant government agencies, principally to advise on the latest knowledge of the origins of
birds wintering in the UK, migration routes and timing, and bird distributions within the
UK. Such information is derived largely from the hard work of volunteers working on
schemes such as the BTO Ringing Scheme and the BTO/WWT/RSPB/JNCC Wetland Bird
Survey (WeBS). We have also remained in close contact with international colleagues.
The overall assessment is that the chance of this strain of the virus being carried to the UK
by a migrating bird is currently low (and no more likely than the chance of transmission via
illegally imported poultry and their products, or the wild bird pet trade). In addition, even if
H5N1 did make it to the UK, it is important to note that this is a disease of birds, primarily
poultry; that there are no known cases of transmission from wild birds to humans; in southeast Asia, the virus has (infrequently) infected humans as a result of close and excessive contact with infected poultry. Thus the risk to human health from wild birds carrying H5N1 is remote.
Nevertheless, it is clearly sensible to keep the situation under review. A number of
organisations are working together to deliver a national surveillance programme for wild
birds on behalf of Defra (for further details see http://www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/diseases/notifiable/disease/ai/index.htm.)
This will include enhanced monitoring for sick or dead birds, coupled with a programme of taking faecal samples from a) apparently healthy live birds, and b) birds shot as part of legal
As part of this process, we would ask birdwatchers in the field to keep an eye out for any suspicious cases of large-scale mortality or sickness amongst wild birds. Wildfowl are potentially among the most vulnerable wild birds. Obviously, all birdwatchers encounter dead birds occasionally, almost all due to perfectly natural causes, so use your common sense. However, if you should come across an incident that seems out of the ordinary, this should be reported via the Government Helpline on 08459 335577 in England, Scotland or Wales or 02890 524999 in Northern Ireland. Calls would then be referred to the relevant veterinary authority. Specialists at the labs would then make an assessment on what further action, if any, should be taken.
Although there have been no proven cases of humans catching the disease from wild birds,
the virus is spread through nasal secretions and faeces, so please do not touch sick birds or
carcases in the event of a suspicious die-off. Note that separate guidelines have been
provided to ringers and these will be made available to anyone else who regularly handles
wild birds. In general, however, to guard against a wide variety of illness, including avian
influenza, it is always prudent to exercise basic hygiene when coming into close contact with
wild animals (e.g. washing hands with soap directly afterwards, especially before eating).
At a time when there is a lot of misinformation on this issue circulating, it is essential to keep matters in perspective and to sift fact from fiction. We reiterate that, at present, we consider the chance of wild birds bringing highly pathogenic H5N1 to the UK to be low and the potential for onwards transmission from wild birds to people to be very low. Obviously,
however, we are continuing to monitor the situation and if there are any further
developments we will communicate these widely, in the first instance via organisational
BTO, WWT, RSPB, JNCC
LINKS: http://www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/diseases/notifiable/disease/ai/wildbirds/qanda.htm (Surveillance Q & Answers)
http://www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/diseases/notifiable/disease/ai/wildbirds/surveillance.htm (Wild Bird Surveillance)