The last pandemic was a ‘quiet killer.’ Ten years after swine flu, no one can predict the next one

The cryptic phone call came on a Monday. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was holding an important teleconference for a few reporters. I should dial in.

When the time came, just a handful of reporters were on the line. Also there: the CDC’s top flu experts. They sounded worried.

Two unrelated children from southern California had tested positive for flu infections caused by viruses that normally sicken pigs. This could have been a fluke, but from the unusual nature of the call and from the tension in the voices of the experts, it was clear that the CDC officials thought it might be something else: an influenza pandemic.

On June 11, 2009 — 10 years ago today — the World Health Organization declared that the swine flu virus we now simply call H1N1 had indeed triggered a pandemic, the first time in four decades a new flu virus had emerged and was triggering wide-scale illness around the globe.

Since it started circulating in the spring of 2009, H1N1 has infected about 100 million Americans, killing about 75,000 and sending 936,000 to the hospital, the CDC estimates. Another virus, H3N2, is responsible for more infections, but “in terms of the severity, H1 is kind of this quiet killer,” said Dr. Daniel Jernigan, head the CDC’s flu division.

In the hands of Hollywood, pandemics tend to be of the one-size-fits-all variety. They unleash massive chaos and spread at lightning speed, as health officials in hooded biohazard suits rush to distribute vaccinations. And in real life, flu pandemics, which tend to strike only a few times each century, could be that terrifying. But, a decade onward, the experience of H1N1 is a reminder that it’s impossible to know from the get-go how a pandemic will play out.

Science currently has no way to predict when pandemics will occur. The fact that there were 41 years between the 1968 pandemic — known as the Hong Kong flu — and the 2009 pandemic doesn’t mean the next will take another 30 years or so to materialize. There is no pattern; flu pandemics happen when they happen, and pandemic planning is ever ongoing.

In the case of H1N1, the public health world was steeling itself for a potentially catastrophic outbreak. Just six years earlier, officials began to respond to a very dangerous bird flu virus called H5N1, first in Southeast Asia and then beyond. It was deadly to chickens and other poultry but — and this was unusual — it was also occasionally infecting people. When it did, the outcome was sobering: More than half of people known to have been infected with the virus died from the infection.

The number of people infected with H5N1 was small, but it stoked fears that this fearsome flu might be readying itself to cause a pandemic. In its place, however, arrived H1N1.

It was distantly related to other H1N1 viruses that had circulated among people for most of the 20th century. In fact, pigs acquired H1N1 decades before from people. But this new virus had evolved in a way that helped it unlock the mysteries of the human respiratory tract and sicken people.

This was certainly not nothing. But it was also not what people had feared would be in store, and it was a substantially lower death toll than was seen in the 1957 and 1968 pandemics, which each killed about 1 million people at a time of lower global populations. In fact, the H1N1 death toll was lower than the global death toll for typical flu seasons, as estimated by the WHO.

But just looking at the number of deaths masks the full impact of the pandemic, because the people who died were younger than those influenza normally claims. (The elderly, whose immune systems had seen viruses similar to this one long ago, weathered the pandemic pretty well.) A group of researchers who analyzed the deaths based on years of life lost concluded the pandemic’s toll in the United States was at least as bad as an average H3N2 flu season and potentially as severe as the 1968 pandemic.

That picture of the 2009 pandemic was only painted after the fact. At the time, the WHO faced pressure from some key member countries not to declare H1N1 a pandemic at all, because of the apparent lack of severity of the situation. The outbreak seemed, well, wimpy after years of warnings of a bad pandemic. Supply chains didn’t break; global air travel was not disrupted.

Still, the WHO made a formal pandemic declaration.

Doing so automatically activated pre-negotiated pandemic vaccine contracts that a number of wealthy countries had with vaccine manufacturers — and a number worried they didn’t need what they were on the hook to buy. Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and France told their suppliers they didn’t want all the vaccine they had ordered. In France’s case, the government told manufacturers it wouldn’t take possession of about half of the 94 million doses it had contracted to buy.

Helen Vaccine Graph
CIDRAP Comprehensive Influenza Vaccine Initiative reportHYACINTH EMPINADO/STAT

The European Parliament later criticized the WHO response as excessive. At least one politician alleged the event was a windfall for pharmaceutical companies that made pandemic vaccine. That argument ignored the fact that flu vaccine takes months to make; if the WHO and countries with preexisting pandemic vaccine contracts had waited to see how severe the outbreak was before ordering vaccine, they’d have had no chance of getting any in time for it to be of use.

As it turned out, they pretty much didn’t anyway. The vaccine took longer than expected to produce.

In the U.S., the Health and Human Services Department estimated in July 2009 that 120 million doses would be available by October. By late October, only 17 million doses had been shipped — and fewer than that had been administered. By the time vaccine was becoming available, infections had peaked and flu activity was declining sharply.

Whenever there’s a major outbreak there are postmortems. Among the key lessons learned from 2009 was it was not enough to tell countries a pandemic had started. They also needed real-time guidance on how severe it seemed to be.

It was also clear that a WHO-established program designed to guarantee low-income countries access to some pandemic vaccine needed more work. In 2009, the WHO had asked vaccine-purchasing countries to donate a portion of their supplies as the vaccine came out of the pipeline. But the reality was that by the time the agency had vaccine to redistribute, the threat had largely dissipated and with it demand for vaccine.

Now the global health agency requires vaccine manufacturers to commit to donate a portion of their pandemic vaccine production in real time in exchange for getting access to the flu viruses the manufacturers use to make seasonal flu vaccine. The WHO recently reported it had signed 13 such agreements with manufacturers, commitments that would give it access to an estimated 400 millions doses of pandemic vaccine that it would distribute to countries in need in the next pandemic.

So will things work better the next time there’s a pandemic? Without knowing how much severe illness the outbreak will cause, it’s almost impossible to venture a guess. It’s worth noting, though, that many of the knock-on effects that a disruptive event like a bad pandemic could cause — the stress it would place on the always fragile supply of key medications, for instance — remain as threatening today as they did a decade ago.

That said, there are some promising developments on the horizon, CDC’s Jernigan said. An explosion in the development of medical tests that work with smartphones raises the specter of a rapid flu test that people could be used at home. Positive results would be sent via phone to doctors’ offices; prescriptions for antiviral drugs would be issued to pharmacies — all without an infected person having to visit a doctor.

A new antiviral drug, Xofluza, which is taken in a single dose, could also have a big impact in the next pandemic. The drug is fast-acting and reduces the amount of viruses that people sick with flu emit — potentially lowering the risk they would infect others. But there are concerns flu viruses could develop resistance to the drug quickly, so its role in a future pandemic is unclear.

At the end of the day, the main tool for fighting flu is vaccine. And with most flu vaccine still made — in hen’s eggs — the same way in 2019 as it was in 2009, and 1968, and 1957 for that matter, there’s every reason to worry about how quickly flu vaccine would be ready when the next pandemic strikes.

First bird flu death: What next?


The “One Health” approach has proved to be effective in reducing zoonotic diseases by working together with infectious disease clinicians, veterinarians, public health and medical microbiologists

Illustration: Ratna Sagar Shrestha/THT

On May 3, the Ministry of Health and Population called an unexpected press meet to announce that a 21-year-old male had died of influenza A “H5N1”, popularly known as “bird flu”. This is the first reported case of a human casualty from a bird flu infection in Nepal. It would be worth mentioning here that this author had previously examined two other suspected bird flu cases, but they could not be verified by laboratory testing due to its unavailability. The author again met a female patient, with a 7-day history of high-grade fever, cough, shortness of breath, and showing signs of pneumonia in the chest x-ray. According to her, she had disposed of chickens herself after their sudden unexplained deaths. These are some recent developments of possible bird flu infections that reinforce one to think “what next?”

Hong Kong was the first country to report H5N1 bird flu infection in humans in 1997. Since then, it has been known to spread to more than 60 countries. Avian influenza H5N1 virus was first reported in chickens in mid-January 2009 in Nepal, the third nation in South Asia to do so after Pakistan and Bangladesh. This incident immediately triggers several questions: What was the source of infection? Does the virus have the ability to spread from birds to humans or even human-to-human? Is chicken meat or egg safe for consumption?

The screening for H5N1 virus on a regular basis is necessary for farmers, chicken handlers, transporters, chicken sellers, frequent visitors to live bird markets, butchers and veterinarians, especially during bird flu outbreaks. Importantly, healthcare providers are always at increased risk of contracting bird flu infection. According to the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division (EDCD), out of 179, 172 (96%) samples have been taken from healthcare providers and sent to Japan to screen for the virus. It shows that healthcare providers are at the highest risk of bird flu infection. Nepal is not capable of confirming the H5N1 virus, which may delay in identifying it.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a sudden death of a large number of crows due to the H5N1 virus in Kathmandu, something not known previously. At present, it is unclear how this highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 virus was introduced in the crow population of Kathmandu. Policy makers usually believe that bird flu infection spreads through transportation of an infected chicken or bird from one place to another. However, many research studies have shown that wild migratory birds are a major source of spreading avian influenza from one place to another or even between regions. There is not much information on wild migratory birds that are potentially spreading bird flu infection in this country.

In the case of Nepal, the present case is the first H5N1 virus infection in humans, but certainly may not be the last one, meaning a future infection or an outbreak of this deadly virus in humans is possible anytime, anywhere. Those who are in the risk groups must take precautionary measures. Until now, it is believed that the H5N1 virus does not spread from human to human, although the question itself remains debatable. It is interesting to mention here that data from the WHO (from 2007 to 2012) showed that most of the H5N1 victims were children less than 5 years old, meaning, there is still a huge knowledge gap about its exact nature of transmission. Influenza A(H1N1)pdm09 virus, popularly known as “swine flu”, now spreads from human to human.

Recently, the Ministry of Health has carried out an investigation following the confirmation of the H5N1 infection in humans to find out the source of the infection and to trace its possible clusters, but without coordination with other sectors, such as the Department of Livestock Services. The author was informed about a bird flu outbreak in a poultry farm in Kathmandu a couple of months ago, where two farmers were suspected to have contracted the bird flu virus (based on WHO case definition), though they were unable to go through laboratory testing due to its unavailability.

The “One Health” approach, which recognizes that the health of the people is related to the health of animals, has proved to be effective in reducing zoonotic diseases by working together with infectious disease clinicians, veterinarians, public health and medical microbiologists. It is even helpful in bringing outbreaks under control in time and effectively. Nepal, therefore, should introduce the “One Health” concept that can be established under an institution, such as a Nepalese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (NCDC).

It is wise not to wait for another H5N1 bird flu case, rather it is worth developing bird flu guidelines of safety measures for healthcare providers, farmers, veterinarians, transporters, sellers and butchers, and train them according to the changing times, although such guidelines may vary depending on the nature of their work or profession.

Pun is Chief, Clinical Research Unit, Sukraraj Tropical & Infectious Disease Hospital

A version of this article appears in print on May 31, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.

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With Climate Change, Animal-to-Human Disease Transfer May Worsen

Certain environments may make it easier for animals to infect humans with diseases like bird flu and Ebola, according to a recent study from The University of Queensland and Swansea University.

In past studies, researchers have identified the spread of diseases by analyzing species impacted by animal-produced pathogens and their patterns of movement, a press release from the University of Queensland explains. This more recent study builds on that research, confirming that environmental conditions have an impact on whether or not pathogens are given the opportunity to interact with and infect humans.

While the Queensland/Swansea study has not provided concrete data on how specific environments affect diseases, scientists confirmed that environmental factors are among the most important in mapping and modeling the spread of zoonotic, or animal-to-human, illness.

Previous studies have given scientists an idea of the factors that contribute to animal-to-human disease transfer. A 2011 study conducted at Stellenbosch University in South Africa found that variables such as land temperature, sea level and acidity, rainfall patterns and soil conditions are among contributing factors. This study also broke down the contributing human factors, including tourism, trade, the agricultural industry and the popularity of domestic pets.

The Stellenbosch study states that approximately 60% of human pathogens originate in animals, and the spread and severity of these outbreaks can occur in unexpected ways. For example, as the climate changes and animals such as birds are forced to migrate to new locations, they may spread unfamiliar pathogens to native species as they travel.

Even human civil, political and military conflict can contribute to the spread of illness by harming health care infrastructure and weakening human ability to respond to illness when it arises, the Stellenbosch study claims.

The current unpredictability of the environment also makes anticipating how disease will spread more difficult. According to Swansea research team leader Konstans Wells, unpredictability caused by climate change makes it harder to establish a reliable model for making predictions.

In order to draw further conclusions about which environments most directly impact disease transfer, the research team hopes to conduct more studies in order to predict and prevent future outbreaks.

First human casualty from bird flu reported in Nepal


KATHMANDU: Bird flu, also known as avian influenza (H5N1 influenza), has recently been determined as the cause of the death of an infected person from Kavrepalanchok district. This is the first reported avian flu casualty in the country, Ministry of Health and Population confirmed.

According to the health ministry, the 21-year-old patient whose identity has been kept under wraps, died on March 29 after having contracted the flu.

The results of the test on pathological sample extracted from the patient’s body, which was received on April 30, was found to be H5N1 influenza positive. The health officials who had diagnosed bird flu as the cause of the patient’s death had sent the patient’s sample to Japan for further tests.

Nepal witnessed an outbreak of the disease from early March this year.

Details to follow.

Botswana’s growing demand for chicken

As demand for poultry meat increases in Botswana there are a number of broiler units in the country scaling up to ensure there is enough supply to keep supermarkets and butchers shelves well stocked. Poultry World reports.

One of the larger poultry producers in Botswana is Bobbsie’s Chickens based in the east at Tshesebe close to Francistown and has been in operation since 1999. This particular farm, owned by Gerald Sanders, runs a full scale production system right through from taking in day old chicks to fattening them and then slaughtering them in the on-site abattoir. From there the meat is butchered into the various cuts, or left whole, then packaged and delivered to local stores, supermarkets and butchers every single day of the week.

General manager of Bobbsie's Chickens, Gerhard van der Merwe. Photo: Chris McCullough

General manager of Bobbsie’s Chickens, Gerhard van der Merwe. Photo: Chris McCullough

The farm has four different housing sites, each with 12 houses and a capacity of 11,200 birds, and produces around 40,000 birds ready for market each week. The general manager of the poultry farm, Gerhard van der Merwe, is responsible for the day to day running of the entire unit and explained how the production system works. “It’s a fairly straight forward system we operate here at Bobbsie’s Chickens and a very effective one,” he said. “We mainly use the Ross and Cobb breeds here and are killing chickens when they are around 33 days old or sometimes a bit older at 36 to 37 days old.

“The houses themselves are all using open ventilation with curtains on the sides allowing us to control the temperature inside the houses. Chicks are placed into the houses which are freshly bedded with shavings and have a fresh supply of water and feed waiting on them.” Temperatures in this area of Botswana can reach 40°C in the summer time so the staff at Bobbsie’s must monitor the heat inside the houses at all times. Mr van der Merwe added: “We maintain a temperature of 32°C in the houses for the new chicks and then start to decrease that as the birds get older. Our staff also turn the shavings at least once per day to keep it dry and free from ammonia.

Farm worker Beke Mabayane with 21 day old chickens. The birds are caught for slaughter around 33 days old or sometimes a bit older at 36 to 37 days old. Photo: Chris McCullough

Farm worker Beke Mabayane with 21 day old chickens. The birds are caught for slaughter around 33 days old or sometimes a bit older at 36 to 37 days old. Photo: Chris McCullough

Heat stress

“Here in the east of Botswana the temperatures stretch from a low of 10°C in the winter time to around 40°C in the summer time so we have to monitor the birds for heat stress continuously. “Our birds are white in colour which also acts as a natural cooling tool against the excessive outside temperatures here. “There is normally a cooling breeze coming in from the south so we build the houses in this direction to make the most of this natural tool,” he said.

When the temperatures dip in the winter time the staff light coal fire burners placed in the centre of each house to ensure a comfortable environment for the birds. Mr van der Merwe added: “In the winter time we use coal burners placed in each house to increase the temperature within each house. These are simply metal burners filled with coal that act as a good central heating system for all the houses.

“The birds are kept away from the fires by ring fencing around them to prevent them getting too close,” he said.

Coal burners are used to increase the house temperatures in the winter time. Photo: Chris McCullough

Coal burners are used to increase the house temperatures in the winter time. Photo: Chris McCullough


The farm also runs a strict biosecurity system using closed fences, vehicle sprays, foot dips and by allocating the same workers to each house.

While bird flu has never been identified in Botswana, both poultry farmers and the agricultural authorities are keeping a close look out for symptoms. The Botswana government has in the past banned imports of poultry meat from neighbouring South Africa and Zimbabwe in a bid to keep the disease out.

“We try to keep all our houses bird proof to prevent any contact with wild birds and thus reducing the threat of bird flu,” said Mr van der Merwe. “There are no trees near the chicken houses where wild birds could rest and the staff are always on the lookout for water leaks. “Our farm is disease free and we vaccinate against Newcastle Disease. The nearest neighbouring poultry unit is around 40 kilometres away so we are well isolated here.

“Botswana is bird flu free but there are many cases in neighbouring Zimbabwe and South Africa so we have to be on our guard at all times,” he added.

Feed is shipped in from South Africa 500 kilometers away as Botswana cannot grow grain itself. Photo: Picasa

Feed is shipped in from South Africa 500 kilometers away as Botswana cannot grow grain itself. Photo: Picasa

Rising costs

The company also runs a sister operation of a similar size in Gaborone called Goodwill Chickens, which supplies poultry meat to the south while Bobbsie’s Chickens supply the north east region including Palapye and as far as Mahalapye. According to Mr van der Merwe the biggest challenge to the business is rising input costs mostly referring to feed costs as this has to be imported from South Africa. “We employ 250 staff at each of our two premises,” he said. “This is a significant cost but as we cannot really grow any grain around here we have to ship all the feedstuffs in a distance of 500 kilometres from South Africa.” With regular price drops in beef due to disease issues, the demand for chicken can increase quite abruptly and often there is not much difference in the price of the two meats. Poultry meat retails in the stores around 26.50 Botswana Pulas (£1.89, € 2.20) per kilogram.

When the chickens are ready the staff catch them manually for slaughter and each house then goes through a resting period to give them time to recover before the next crop. “The houses have eight weeks downtime between the cycles after being thoroughly cleaned out and disinfected,” said Mr van der Merwe “This gives us optimum conditions in which to rear the next batch of chicks and so the entire process starts again.

“We are also embarking on a programme to renew the chicken houses as they become old. The older ones will be replaced at some point with more modern buildings but will still adhere to the same system as we use now as it works well,” he said.

Namibia: Bird Flu Continues to Kill Penguins … 27 Penguins Found Dead

Photo: Lüderitz Marine Research/Facebook

Seabee Ndjengua on 17th January gathering carcasses on Halifax Island.

Lüderitz — Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources scientists found 27 penguins dead and three sick birds showing symptoms of Bird flu, even with the efforts from the ministry to control the spread of the virus.

The scientists continue to take necessary measures to contain the infection as well as prevent further spreading by collecting and burning dead carcasses, isolating sick birds showing symptoms as well as disinfecting wet areas around the colonies where most dead birds have been found. The wet areas were disinfected by spreading salts on the mud pools at the colonies and covering it up with beach sand. The fisheries biologist under the Seabirds and Offshore Islands Section, Desmond Tom, indicated that a virologist from University of Namibia is willing to do DNA sequencing for viral genomics, discovery and evolution with the assistance of veterinarians from SANCCOB, Cape Town, South Africa. He said they are continuing to put salt and isolation of sick ones from healthy penguins to control the spread of the virus, as the virus needs to run its course, as there is no vaccine for it. The ministry of fisheries’ officers started visiting the Island weekly after the swab samples collected on penguins last year at Halifax Island in Lüderitz and tested by the Central Veterinary Laboratory, tested positive of Avian Influenza H5N8. Avian influenza refers to infection of birds with Avian Influenza Type A virus. It occurs naturally among wild birds worldwide and can infect domestic poultry and other bird species.

The report indicated the death of penguins on Halifax Island was discovered mid December 2018 to date. More than 500 penguins, mostly adults have been reported dead even though chicks and juveniles are also affected.

Halifax Island is situated about 10 kilometres west of Lüderitz near Diaz Point, about 100 metres off the mainland. It is the second most important breeding site for African penguins and is home to about 7 000 penguins that contribute to the entire population of about 26 000 penguins in Namibia. The African penguins are endangered seabirds in Namibia and they are endemic to Namibia and South Africa.

Bat flu could cause a global pandemic and kill a lot of people, scientists warn

Jasper HamillThursday 21 Feb 2019 12:37 pm Share this article via facebookShare this article via twitterShare this article via messenger You’ve heard of bird flu, but the next epidemic to hit Earth and kill a lot of humans could come from bats. That’s the warning from scientists who fear the creepy flying mammals could be ‘reservoirs for a new type of influenza virus’ which has the potential to ‘attack the cells of humans and livestock’. Researchers from the University of Zurich have warned that bat flu viruses can mutate so they pose a risk of infection to humans. This process is called zoonotic transmission and ‘at worst can lead to a global influenza pandemic with numerous serious illnesses and deaths’. Could bats spark a pandemic which sweeps the world? (Picture: Shutterstock) And in case you’re not scared enough already, bats are already known to be carriers of Ebola. ‘Such an infection has not yet been observed. However, our findings show that the viruses generally have this zoonotic potential,’ said Silke Stertz from the university’s Institute of Medical Virology. In 1918, a Spanish flu epidemic infected 500 million people around the world and killed between 50 and 100 million. If a similar pandemic hit the modern world, millions of people could die. Tedros Adhanom, chief of the World Health Organization, warned in February last year that humanity is ‘vulnerable’ to a pandemic. The Cabinet Office already lists pandemic influenza as the biggest threat on the UK’s Risk Register – placing it ahead of terrorism and cyber-attacks.


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Bird flu kills 250 penguins on Halifax Island

WALVIS BAY – The Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources says samples collected from hundreds of dead penguins tested by the Central Veterinary Laboratory tested positive for Avian Influenza H5N8, a type of bird flu.
This follows after about 250 dead penguins were discovered late December on Halifax Island situated about 10 kilometres from Luderitz.

According to a press statement issued by the public relations officer of the ministry, De Wet Siluka, this specific strain of bird flu normally occurs naturally among wild aquatic birds worldwide and can infect domestic poultry and other birds or animal species as well. However, it does not normally infect humans.

Siluka said the ministry of fisheries has already taken precautionary measures and will continue to contain the infection to prevent further spreading.

“Such measures include regular visits to collect dead carcasses, isolating the sick birds and disinfecting wet areas around the colonies, and chemicals as the virus cannot survive in salt water,” he assured members of the public.
The infected birds will not usually get sick but can spread the contagious virus that can even kill certain domestic bird species including chickens and turkeys.

“Infected birds shed the virus through their saliva, nasal secretion and faeces.  Healthy birds can contract the virus by coming in contact with contaminated services.  However the good thing is that the virus cannot survive in salt water,” he said.

Halifax is situated about 10 kilometres west of Luderitz and is located about 100 metres off the mainland.  It is the third most important breeding site for African penguins and home to about 2 500 that contribute to the entire Namibian population of 26 000 penguins.  Other seabirds such as the crowned cormorants, swift terns and Hartlaub’s gulls also breed on this island.  Senior fisheries biologist, Desmond Tom, told New Era yesterday that humans are not at risk, however they can spread the virus to other animals if they get into contact with infected animals.
“The good thing however is that the island is currently non-accessible to people apart from fisheries officials,” he said.

Large number of fish-eating birds Indian cormorants found dead at lakes in Bengaluru

Wildlife enthusiasts were appalled to see the cormorants dying in huge numbers at Kasavanahalli Lake where at least 50 to 60 birds have reportedly died in three days.

Devdiscourse News Desk Bengaluru Last Updated at 03-11-2018 06:59:03 IST India
Large number of fish-eating birds Indian cormorants found dead at lakes in Bengaluru
  • “We are also not sure what killed these birds. Our veterinary doctor will collect the sample and would submit a report soon,” said P Jagannath Rao. (Image Credit: Twitter)

A large number of Indian cormorants, a variety of fish-eating birds, have been found dead in the past three days at one of the lakes in Bengaluru, according to environmentalists. Wildlife enthusiasts were appalled to see the cormorants dying in huge numbers at Kasavanahalli Lake where at least 50 to 60 birds have reportedly died in three days.

A large number of the birds have died, a local lake protection group member L Sreenivas said Saturday. “We are not sure what the reasons are,” he said. The lake protection group members contacted civic authorities, who sent a veterinary doctor to ascertain the cause of death.

“We are also not sure what killed these birds. Our veterinary doctor will collect the sample and would submit a report soon,” said P Jagannath Rao, deputy conservator of forest (lake division). Initially, the local groups suspected the involvement of a fish contractor, who might have poisoned the birds. It was, however, ruled out as the fish were in good health. The other possibilities could be avian bird flu or the cyanobacteria bloom in the lake. Bengaluru lakes have been in the news for wrong reasons due to high contamination.

The largest among all the water bodies in Bengaluru, the Bellandur lake has been in the limelight for catching fire due to the high level of non-biodegradable chemicals, as well as heavy metals. Despite the National Green Tribunal’s direction to the civic agencies, the water quality of Bellandur lake and water bodies upstream have not improved much, according to officials.

(With inputs from agencies.)

Hong Kong sisters spearhead pigeon rescues but face prejudice and legal obstacles

Inez and Gian help the city’s wounded birds in the face of opposition from the public and they want the government to do more to help combat misconceptions about the health risks from contact with pigeons

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 October, 2018, 10:04am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 October, 2018, 10:04am
In Victoria Park, an elderly man, visibly annoyed, spits a mouthful of water at a flock of feeding pigeons.
He turns to sisters Gian and Inez and snaps at them: “The reason they’re here defecating and spreading germs all over the place is because people like you feed them!”

The man, who declined to give his name, then takes a fresh mouthful of water before launching another attack on the birds.

Inez says this outburst is relatively mild, adding that she has seen people pour boiling water over pigeons.

She and Gian run “Hong Kong Pigeon and Dove Rescue”, a Facebook group dedicated to promoting awareness for the well-being of pigeons, and which teaches members how to nurse sick birds back to health.

When Gian rescued her first pigeon four years ago, she took the injured bird to several vets before one was willing to take a look at it. The pigeon had a broken wing and it was likely it would never fly again. On the vet’s advice, Gian reluctantly had the bird put down. “Looking back, I think I could’ve nursed it back to health and kept it,” she says. “Even if it never flew again, at least it would’ve lived.”

It was this loss that inspired Gian and Inez, both in their 30s and who prefer to be mentioned only by their first names, to start the Facebook group. With the help of a few like-minded friends, in one year, the group has developed into a community of more than 1,100 members.

“There aren’t many locally available pigeon care resources and providers, unlike those for cats and dogs,” says Gian, a self-taught pigeon rescuer.

“So we created a platform where people can exchange pigeon care tips and learn how to care for sick and injured pigeons without professional intervention.”

For many Hongkongers, like those in the park, what they are doing is unthinkable.

“Pigeons are filthy!” Leung Iok-lam, 70, says.

A pair of Form Six students from a nearby secondary school seem to agree. “I wouldn’t touch a sick pigeon if I saw one,” Melody Ni Tak-yan says. “I’d worry about contracting some sort of disease.”

“Or making a sick pigeon sicker,” Lim Chi-ling adds.

Gian and Inez however, believe pigeons are the victims of misconceptions.

“Many people automatically associate pigeons with avian flu, partly because of public health campaigns,” says Gian, referring to government regulations that forbid feeding feral pigeons to prevent the spread of so-called “bird diseases”.

“I see where they’re coming from, but I hope they would delve deeper into this issue instead of simply believing everything they hear.”

The regulations were introduced in 2003 as part of the government’s efforts to slow the growth of feral bird populations, which authorities claimed were a public nuisance and the cause of hygiene problems. Offenders face fines of HK$1,500 (US$191).

However, according to findings by the World Health Organisation (WHO) from 2002, comparative studies involving pigeons and other bird species showed pigeons were resistant or minimally susceptible to coming down with bird flu.

Subsequent studies on pigeons sampled in China, Japan, Turkey, Romania and Ukraine suggest that pigeons have played a minimal role in the spread of the H5N1 avian flu virus, which emerged in 2004.

Still, the WHO cautioned against unnecessary close contact with pigeons, citing other studies that demonstrate an increased susceptibility of pigeons to the H5N1 strain.

Gian and Inez, who have cared for more than 100 sick or injured pigeons over the past four years, say they have never contracted diseases from the birds, despite not using gloves, surgical masks and other protective gear when handling them. The sisters believe the government’s persistent warnings have created an unwarranted fear of pigeons among many Hongkongers, including even animal health care workers.

“One time, I took a pigeon to the vet to get an X-ray – and it was returned to me with a broken leg,” says Inez. She suspects the medical staff, whom she says were reluctant to handle the bird , broke the leg during the scan.

Meanwhile, Gian recalls being turned down by multiple vets: “Many vets are concerned about taking in pigeons because they do not want to risk getting in trouble with the law, or worry about bird flu affecting business.”

“Many vets are concerned about taking in pigeons because they do not want to risk getting in trouble with the law, or worry about bird flu affecting business”

In Hong Kong, premises where more than 20 pigeons are bred, housed, or cared for require a licence.

Gian has had to rent a second flat to accommodate her work. Her retail career, which requires shift work, means dedicating time to the pigeons can sometimes be difficult. “When you really believe in something, you’ll do whatever it takes to do it right,” she says.

Looking ahead, the Facebook group hopes to involve more experts and professionals from relevant fields to conduct research on the impact of pigeons on public health and the environment, and potentially propose changes to legislation and education – for example, designating feeding zones and implementing measures to control the pigeon population.

Passionate as she may be, Gian is careful where she draws the line between her career, personal life and volunteering. “Many people take it for granted that we would drop everything and help out whenever there is a pigeon in need,” she says. “But I have my own life to lead. If we’re going to push for change, it’s got to be a team effort.”