Migrations Complicate Efforts to Thwart Bird Flu
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Romania earlier this month confirmed more cases of bird flu in villages there, and officials in Ukraine say the H5N1 virus has also been detected. As cases of bird flu in eastern Europe increase, many European countries are trying to keep their domestic birds from coming into contact with migrating wild fowl which might carry the disease. The Rhone River delta in France is one of the largest migratory bird wetlands in Europe, and officials there are on the watch for bird flu as Eleanor Beardsley reports.
(Soundbite of quacking ducks)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY reporting:
The Camargue is a bird watcher's paradise. Herons, storks and flamingos are a few of the species that make their home in this region in southern France where the Rhone River meets the Mediterranean Sea. The Rhone Estuary, along with Romania's Danube Delta and the Guadalquivir River in Spain, are the continent's largest crossroads for migrating birds. While more than 300 bird species live in the Camargue, a million birds pass through here twice a year during fall and spring migration. Many of the birds stay in southern France for the winter, while for others the Camargue is only a pit stop before the long haul across the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara Desert to reach Africa. Camargue park ranger Guile Ann-Marie(ph) says this fall everyone is on high alert.
Mr. GUILE ANN-MARIE (Camargue Park Ranger): (Through Translator) Of all the migrating birds, ducks, we fear, will bring the virus. We have about 150,000 ducks who come here to spend the winter and 50,000 or so who stop in the Camargue on their way to Africa. The ducks come from Siberia and Russia and they pass through Turkey and Romania, all the zones that have been affected.
BEARDSLEY: Ann-Marie says the French government hasn't set up a system of surveillance and monitoring to deal with a possible outbreak of the virus.
(Soundbite of Michaud Gottier-Claire(ph) wading through marsh water)
BEARDSLEY: Every morning, veterinarian Michaud Gottier-Claire wades into the marshes to inspect his duck traps. Gottier-Claire is the head researcher at the Tour du Valat Biological Station. He and his team are responsible for detecting the bird flu virus if it surfaces here. Gottier-Claire takes a blood sample from the ducks before releasing them.
Dr. MICHAUD GOTTIER-CLAIRE (Veterinarian and Head Researcher, Tour du Valat Biological Station): (Through Translator) If the flu is present in wild birds, we can't do much because we can't stop them from migrating. We can only study which birds are bringing, where they come from and where they're heading. The circulation of viruses and pathogens is actually a natural process that has been going on for thousands of years.
BEARDSLEY: Gottier-Claire says the most effective tool to contain a possible outbreak is the cooperation of the surrounding community. The fisherman, hunters and ranchers who make their living in the Camargue are now working with the ministries of Agriculture and Hunting, and the Pasteur Institute in Paris to monitor the situation.
Mr. PASCAL MYON(ph) (Camargue Rancher): (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Forty-seven-year-old Pascal Myon breeds wild bulls for the traditional Camargue bullfights. He is rounding up some of his best bulls this morning to take to the ring in a nearby village.
Mr. MYON: (Through Translator) We did the same thing three years ago for the West Nile virus. I'm not scared. We've always had birds here. It's good to keep watching and anticipate because this bird flu could be dangerous. But I think we're making too much of this virus. We're just scaring people.
BEARDSLEY: No one here seems worried that the new strain of avian flu will devastate local bird populations, much less mutate into a deadly human virus. But the French government is taking the potential threat seriously. It has mandated that domestic birds in surrounding regions be kept indoors and has ordered 200 million face masks and 40 million doses of Tamiflu, the drug that will be used if a human epidemic does break out. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley.
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