Vol. 3 No.2  

Combating the risk and emergence of bird flu

Prof. Bernard DickensRomania’s size and its status as a home for migrating birds could make the country a continuing target for bird ‘flu. Bernard Dickens, Professor Emeritus of Health Law and Policy at the University of Toronto, outlines the global problems and solutions

     Bird ‘flu, or Avian influenza H5N1, which broke out in Romania last year with over 80 cases reported, is one of a number of potentially lethal viral infections that pose the risk of pandemic spread when they pass from animal carriers into human populations.
     In 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) emerged from South-East Asia and spread to Canada with jet-propelled speed. A Toronto resident was infected on a visit to China, and flew back to infect her son. They both died, along with 42 other residents. AIDS, resulting from infection with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is perhaps the best known worldwide modern pandemic, although public health authorities in many countries are preparing for an overdue influenza pandemic.
     Lessons from SARS, HIV/AIDS, anticipated severe influenza and, for instance, re-emerging tuberculosis (TB), which is also an issue in Romania, can be applied to develop international stra-tegies to combat Avian influenza. Bird ‘flu was first identified in 1997 in Hong Kong, but may have originated elsewhere in the region where people live and work close to flocks of poultry. It has triggered an international alert to track its spread, especially west into Europe, and reactions that may appear appropriately cautious or irresponsibly excessive. For instance in Britain, when a dead swan that washed up on the coast of Scotland in April 2006 was found infected with the H5N1 virus, 35,000 chickens were slaughtered, and in February 2007, when thousands of turkeys were found to have died of the same cause, officials slaughtered almost 160,000 birds that might have been infected.
     It is natural that poultry farmers will fear the presence and identification of bird ’flu in their flocks. Their urge to conceal the infection, to preserve their livelihood, cannot necessarily be overcome by threats of punishment. Authorities may encourage farmers to report sickness and death among their birds by showing credible prospects of compensation covering not only the market value of their flocks, but also their commercial rehabilitation into profitable farming.

Chinese lessons

     National economies may not be sufficiently robust to bear the costs of compensation on this scale. Nevertheless, countries should not give in to incentives of economy to suppress disclosure of H5N1 in their bird or human populations. China earned international condemnation for concealing SARS among its human population in the early years when it feared economic consequences. Human deaths have arisen from H5N1, but at a sufficiently infrequent rate to support the view that it is essentially an avian infection that can be contained in its human transmission and effects by vaccine and comparable developments.
     The outbreak of H5N1 among humans would pose a threat to local, regional, national and international health. It is therefore of benefit to all nations, not only those close to a country in which an outbreak has occurred, to ensure that it is identified, and that the economic disincentives to disclosure by farmers and governments be overcome. A key principle of the ethic of justice is that those who seek benefits should be willing to bear the burden or costs that make the benefit possible.      Accordingly, since the international community wants to benefit from prompt disclosure of a potentially pandemic infection, it should contribute to the costs of compensating farmers and others liable to be harmed by disclosure of their infected avian and/or human populations.
International funding should be devoted not only to find a vaccine or other treatment for H5N1 infection in humans, but also to compensate farmers and families that would suffer financial hardship, for instance from lost sales and the need to buy alternative sources of nutrition, from sacrifice of their poultry. Many poultry farmers and bird-keeping families, for instance in Romania, are poor. Adequate compensation for loss of their bird-stock would not be burdensome.
     The world’s wealthier countries should bear the lion’s share of funding compensation, as contributing to their own and other countries’ population protection against what may otherwise become a pandemic infection of unpredictable magnitude. Due compensation for loss of birds by disclosure of their possible exposure to avian influenza, and for nutritional replacement of poultry lost to domestic consumption, would create incentives for poorer farm businesses and families to test their birds for infection and report any found.

The Diplomat/Wolf Theiss Experts Platform is a monthly essay written by an international or local expert on current topics of the day. The opinions expressed herein are not reflective of any opinions of The Diplomat and Wolf Theiss as to agreement/disagreemnt or otherwise.