Bird-watchers: Government should have prepared more for avian flu

The government could have done more to prepare for the arrival avian flu, according to Dan Alon, director of the Israel Ornithology Center. "Unfortunately," Alon told The Jerusalem Post, "the government of Israel didn't [make] the basic effort to start researching the connection between wild migrating birds and avian flu." While Alon praised the government's actions over the past few days, he suggested that efforts could have been made to prepare as early as last October. "Because everyone knew the risk of the flu last summer, it shouldn't have taken more than three months to put everything together and start work on it," Alon said. If the government had taken begun basic research, he said, "today we would know much more than we have. It's a problem." On Monday, Dr. Yossi Leshem, a researcher at Tel Aviv University and director of the International Center for the study of Bird Migration, Latrun, agreed with Alon's statements. In October, Dr. Leshem submitted a proposal to the Ministries of Health and Agriculture that would have used existing bird migration monitoring networks to screen for avian flu. The program would have cost NIS 1 million. According to Leshem, resources were to be allocated for the program, but ultimately he received none. "I think they behaved like ostriches putting their heads in the sand," Leshem said. Dr. Shimon Perk, director of the Avian Diseases Laboratory at the Kimron Veterinary Institute, explained that the program did not receive funding because too many questions remained concerning its efficacy: "What is the meaning of finding [an infected] migrating bird? Will it help us at all? How many birds do we have to check?" Perk coauthored a new proposal with Leshem for a joint program with the European Community to study and combat avian flu. In the mean time, Perk said the government was practicing "passive surveillance," meaning all dead birds that were found were brought to the institute for testing. The active surveillance program originally proposed by Leshem in October would not be useful in relation to the short-term fight against avian flu, Perk said. "I think it's important ecologically and scientifically to see the role of migrating birds," Perk clarified, "but it's not what we need now." Alon emphasized that migrating birds were not the main agent in the spread of avian flu. He noted that many among the bird-watching community, in Israel and abroad, were not pleased with the tendency to associate natural birds and migrating birds with outbreaks of avian flu. Perk concurred with this assessment and noted that because the four reports of the virus came close together in time, it was likely it was spread by trucks or people. In all, the Ministry of Agriculture has confirmed six cases of the H5N1 strain of bird flu in Ein Hashlosha, Holit, Kibbutz Nahshon, Sde Moshe and most recently Nir Oz and Amioz. To curb the spread of avian flu, Alon recommended keeping poultry farms more secure: "The main thing to do is to reduce the connection between migrating and natural birds to farm birds. If a sparrow can get into a chicken farm or turkey farm he can carry the flu and probably impact the entire farm." "Israel's unique location at the junction of three continents, Europe, Asia and Africa, makes it a site for an extraordinary phenomena: some 500 million migrating birds cross its skies twice a year," according to the Web site of the Israel Ornithological Center's International Center for the Study of Bird Migration in Latrun Dr. Perk declined to give an assessment of future risk: "We don't like to give risks because one can never know. It's very hard to predict."