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The speed at which the H5N1 HPAI virus has spread out from East Asia into the rest of Asia, Africa and Europe, the massive damage it has caused to the poultry industry and livelihoods of people dependent on this industry for food and subsistence, the human lives it has taken in some countries and the perceived risk of this or a related virus leading to the next human influenza pandemic has made this virus a very popular media issue.

The unusual mass deaths of wildlife caused by this virus strain, particularly in wild birds in 2005 and smaller numbers of swans and other resident and migratory birds in Europe and elsewhere has, in part, resulted in a lot of media confusion of the role of wild birds in the movement of the virus. The complexity of the issue and misreporting of the role of wild birds has created and strengthened the erroneous perception that there is a strong and proven link that wild birds are the main reason for the spread of H5N1 HPAI virus.

This has resulted in a growing negative public attitude to wild birds and the environment. Further, it has led to misdirected responses such as the calls for and killing of wild birds and the destruction of their habitats in many countries in an attempt to control the spread of the virus. All international bodies, including FAO, WHO and OIE, do not prescribe or support activities such as killing of wild birds or destruction of their environment as a mechanism to prevent or control outbreaks of HPAI.

Research to date demonstrates that the virus is mainly transported by the activities of people and poultry movement. There is no scientific evidence of migratory birds being able to transport the H5N1 HPAI virus over long distances and thereafter to spread it to poultry or humans, although this remains a possibility. There is also no evidence that wild birds are the reservoir for this highly pathogenic virus, even though they serve as the reservoir for a range of low pathogenic avian influenza strains.

The media has an important and positive role in making scientifically backed and balanced information available to the public. Although the ecology of this unique avian influenza virus strain (H5N1) is not currently well understood, it is important to report verified factual information in order to properly present how this disease is being maintained and spreading globally. To facilitate this, FAO is making information available through its website and in partnership with the Scientific Task Force on the AIWEB , FAO has developed a wild bird and H5N1 HPAI fact sheet, and FAO is willing to provide other information on request.

 

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