Source of bird flu disputed

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Source of bird flu disputed

As the government tries to contain outbreaks of avian influenza (AI) on poultry farms, questions are being raised over its assertion that the source of the infections was migrating Baikal Teal ducks from Siberia.

After nearly 1,000 Baikal Teal ducks were found dead last week at a reservoir five kilometers away from an AI-stricken poultry farm in Gochang, quarantine officials blamed the migratory birds for introducing the highly pathogenic H5N8 strain, which has swept poultry farms in North Jeolla since last week. The dead ducks were confirmed to be infected with H5N8.

But the fact that not a single case of bird flu has been reported from outside North Jeolla suggests the Baikal Teals might have been victims of an epidemic already spreading in poultry farms in the area.

According to the Korean Association for Bird Protection, a state-funded environmental group, as many as 600,000 Baikal Teals migrate to Korea from Siberia every October for the winter. On Dec. 7, some 400,000 birds were seen at Yeongam and Youngsan lakes in South Jeolla, the association said.

No suspected AI outbreak was reported from the province.

Experts say the 400,000 birds stayed at the two lakes for about two months and moved northward, some heading to the Donglim Reservoir in Gochang.

The lack of reported AI cases from South Jeolla and other sites where the migratory birds stayed raised suspicions that the wild birds that reached Gochang were infected by the virus affecting the farms, not the other way around.

“Though the government has blamed the migratory birds for being the carriers of the virus, it is possible that they were in fact the victims of the virus originated from the poultry farms [in Gochang],” said Namgung Dae-sik, director of the association in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily.

“These birds settled down here last October from Siberia. If they were the carriers of bird flu, AI outbreaks would have occurred last year around their habitats throughout the country.”

The government still believes the Baikal ducks introduced the disease in the first place.

“We still assess that migratory birds were the source of the disease,” said Kwon Jae-han, director of the livestock policy team at the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, adding that it will take up to a few months to conclusively determine the source of the virus.

Meanwhile, the government yesterday confirmed another case of AI-infected ducks at a poultry farm in Gochang, putting the total number of confirmed infected farms at nine since the first outbreak was reported on Jan. 16. Ten other tests are currently under way to verify infections at other farms in Gochang, Buan and Jeongup in North Jeolla, as of yesterday, according to the Agriculture Ministry.

“Since the last suspected case was reported Tuesday, there have been no reports,” said the ministry.

As of yesterday, the quarantine authorities slaughtered a total of 369,000 ducks and chickens from 25 poultry farms in the Jeolla regions, with another group of 60,000 to be culled soon.


BY KANG JIN-KYU, KWON CHEOL-AM [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]

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