bird flu and plane crashes

April 3, 2006

in Birds, Environmental issues, Science

Recently, we have been being warned left, right, and center that avian influenza H5N1 was likely to enter the United States via migratory birds this year (or this spring, or next week, depending on the tenor of the article). I concur that H5N1 may end up here sooner rather than later, but the probability is that it will spread to the U.S. in the same way it has spread to other most other countries: via poultry or poultry products.

While there are some bird species that do migrate from Europe and Asia to North America, in order for H5N1 to spread across the continent — a situation considered imminent in some reports — it would require that birds manage to survive a long migration infected with H5N1, that they readily infect North American birds, that these birds survive all summer, migrate themselves, infect other birds…you get the idea.  A big leap of faith (or fear).

A particularly annoying article ran a map, part of which is shown below. Using broad outlines of major flyways, this piece colored in some overlaps, and concluded there was a big area in Arctic Canada where infected birds would pass on H5N1 to birds that would migrate through Michigan.

I think this is a gross misrepresentation of flyway maps.  It’s like looking at one of those maps of airline routes in the back of an in-flight magazine:

And deciding there will be mid-air collisions all over the place.  Yes, it could happen, but it would take a pretty extraordinary sequence of events for it to occur.

Get a more reasonable view of the role of migratory birds in the spread of bird flu…


Roger B. April 3, 2006 at 11:04 am

The British press went through a "We're all going to die!" phase a few months ago, but now they seem to have bored with bird flu. Even the BBC reported the outbreaks in Europe as if they were the result of an unstoppable tide of infected wild birds advancing steadily towards the UK.

John April 3, 2006 at 12:46 pm

I was glad to see the more reasonable coverage of the flu in last Monday's NYT. Not just the article linked here but a few others that accompanied it. This was an improvement over the scare-mongering of the last few months. Unfortunately the hyping of this flu may make it more difficult for public health experts to encourage action on real threats in the future.

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