Avian Flu Epidemic Reveals Holes in the Net
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
January 14, 2015
Executive Summary: Can Taiwan wage a "decisive offshore battle?" If the battle is over avian influenza, then Taiwan has already fallen to the enemy. Immunization units have belatedly engaged in culling, disinfection, and isolation. Public health physicians have promoted food safety efforts. But these merely plug holes in the net. Ten years ago, the avian flu first appeared in Taiwan. Vaccinations should have become standard operating procedure. Unfortunately, the net remains riddled with holes.
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Can Taiwan wage a "decisive offshore battle?" If the battle is over avian influenza, then Taiwan has already fallen to the enemy. Immunization units have belatedly engaged in culling, disinfection, and isolation. Public health physicians have promoted food safety efforts. But these merely plug holes in the net. Ten years ago, the avian flu first appeared in Taiwan. Vaccinations should have become standard operating procedure. Unfortunately, the net remains riddled with holes.
From a risk management perspective, the government's response leaves people speechless. An epidemic prevention network must be established before migratory birds arrive from the north, not hastily concocted after an outbreak has already occurred. An old adage states, "Do not hope the enemy will not attack. Prepare for any kind of attack." This is the iron law of epidemic prevention. Yesterday COA chairman Chen Bao-ji said "If the mortality rate exceeds 20%, we will cull." But that merely cleans up the mess. One has already lost the initiative.
Each year migratory birds wintering in the south arrive on Taiwan very punctually. By mid-October, they have arrived on Taiwan. They return north the following April. Once a year, migratory birds are man's honored guests. Naturally we welcome them. But poultry farms are often hotbeds for mutating viruses spread by migratory birds, waterfowl, and waders. Therefore when migratory birds arrive in October,epidemic prevention agencies should be on full alert. Migratory birds will not wait until we are ready before they spread viruses. Waterfowl and waders in particular, often carry diseases. For humans, this requires a cautious response.
Migratory birds are the biggest hosts when it comes to the seasonal spread of viruses. This is something those charged with epidemic control must understand. Academic research on migratory birds is a mature science. Unfortunately Taiwan has yet to apply this science. It has not gone beyond birdwatching. Taiwan has a good reputation for the scientific tracking of migratory bird patterns. But it has yet to apply this knowledge to epidemic prevention.
Taiwan is a hot spot for migratory birds wintering in the south. They arrive on Taiwan from the east, from Sakhalin, Japan, the Korean Peninsula, and Okinawa. They arrive on Taiwan from the west, from Siberia, Heilongjiang, Yancheng, and Poyang Lake Sanctuary. Flight paths and migratory times are fixed. Taiwan is a hot spot because birds fly long distances over land or water. When they encounter headwinds, they need to rest and live off the land. Taiwan for them, has become a Mecca.
Ecologists have urged government land planners to factor in the routes taken by migratory birds. These are high-risk areas for avian influenza. Poultry farms should not be located in these regions. Birds have no bladders. Their feces and urine get mixed together. They indiscriminately discharge these wastes along their flight paths. The avian influenza virus is replicated in the digestive tracts of birds. Therefore the flight paths for migratory birds are high risk zones for avian influenza. But bird excretions are not concentrated in breeding ground waters. Nor are they discharged in the vicinity of feed buckets. Therefore the decision of epidemic prevention units to add bird netting to feed buckets is not necessarily a scientific one.
Ignorance about new viruses is also a major problem. The newly emerged H5N2 virus that has appeared on Taiwan is not the same H5N2 that appeared in the past. Its H gene came from Korea. Its N gene came from the Mainland. The two are very similar. It is impossible to tell the difference. It is impossible to determine whether the new virus is a mutation of the virus from the migratory birds' previous habitat, or a mutation that developed after entering Taiwan. Heavier concentrations of chlorine disinfectants merely suppress the virus. They are not a remedy.
To plug the holes, we must do more than fight a "decisive offshore battle." Regional cooperation is also essential. Before the outbreak on Taiwan, South Korea issued reports of bird flu. This gave Taiwan ample warning. The Korean Peninsula is the birds' previous stop in their southward migration. Taiwan cannot avoid being affected. On Mainland China, for example, the wetlands monitoring system set up by the Mainland's State Forestry Administration is now three years old. It boasts world-class standards. It monitors the migration of wetland waterfowl, and waders, and possible mutations of the virus. This is the role that wetlands play in disease prevention. The Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, Mainland China, the Hong Kong Mai Po Reserve, and other monitoring units should share data promptly. This would help control any future outbreaks.
Taiwan should improve the sensitivity of Taiwan region outbreak detection. This would aid the international exchange of information. For example, migratory birds arrived on Taiwan last October. Suppose they had brought with them new, high risk viruses? Poultry farms would have been affected. Egg production would have declined. Poultry would have suffered increased mortality. Such numbers in isolation may not mean much. But combine them with regional data, and trends become apparent. The more data gathered from neighbouring countries, the clearer the picture. This is something one must realize.
Other factors include human interference with migratory patterns. These are not yet fully understood. They include the impact of wind turbines and wind farms on the path of migratory birds, as well as aircraft take offs and landings that disturb airflow on runways. All these can lead to abnormal animal responses. These are all important indicators of changes in avian influenza. Ignore them and may the price.
The key however remains to “wage a decisive offshore battle." That remains an iron law.
2015-01-14 02:28:08 聯合報 社論