Table of Contents:



I. Storm Gathering

1. 1918

2. Master of Metamorphosis

3. H5N1

4. Playing Chicken

5. Worse Than 1918?

6. When, Not If

II. When Animal Viruses Attack

1. The Third Age

2. Man Made

3. Livestock Revolution

4. Tracing the Flight Path

5. One Flu Over the Chicken's Nest

6. Coming Home to Roost

7. Guarding the Henhouse

III. Pandemic Preparedness

1. Cooping Up Bird Flu

2. Race Against Time

3. Tamiflu

IV. Surviving the Pandemic

1. Don't Wing It

2. Our Health in Our Hands

3. Be Prepared

V. Preventing Future Pandemics

1. Tinderbox

2. Reining in the Pale Horse


References 1-3,199

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H5N1-infected smuggled eagles

Fighting cocks are not the only birds smuggled internationally. Wild birds are sold by the millions as part of the global pet trade. Before H5N1, a single market in Indonesia sold up to 1.5 million wild birds every year.1463 With the development of electronic payment methods over the internet, the international trafficking of wild animals has surged—up more than 60% in the United States, for example, over the past decade.1464 The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that Americans have imported more than 350,000 birds a year.1465 Although imports of all birds from countries with documented H5N1 poultry outbreaks have been banned jointly by the CDC and the USDA,1466 the combination of a thriving black market,1467 lax laws in Southeast Asia,1468 and the rapid spread of the disease to new counties1469 threatens to turn the legal U.S. trade in pet birds into a cover for the laundering of smuggled Asian birds into the United States.

“It’s big business,” said a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the illegal smuggling of exotic birds, ranking it just behind drug smuggling as border control’s chief law enforcement concern.1470 The U.S. State Department estimates that the illegal exotic animal trade is a $10 billion industry.1471 Many birds are illicitly imported from Asian countries battling bird flu.1472 “We are genuinely concerned,” said the administrator of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service about the risk of smuggled birds bringing H5N1 to U.S. shores.1473

The risk is not theoretical. In late 2004, a man from Thailand was stopped for a routine random drug check in a Belgian airport. Authorities found a pair of rare crested hawk eagles stuffed into plastic tubes in his luggage.1474 Both of the birds were found to be harboring H5N1.1475 The report of the incident in the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal concluded: “[I]nternational air travel and smuggling represent major threats for introducing and disseminating H5N1 virus worldwide.”1476 “We were very, very lucky,” said the chief influenza expert at Belgium’s Scientific Institute of Public Health. “It could have been a bomb for Europe.”1477

Bird smuggling may actually have been what brought the West Nile virus to the Western Hemisphere.1478 West Nile hit New York in 1999 and has since spread across 48 states and Canada,1479 with thousands of cases in 2005 and more than 100 deaths.1480 Its continued expansion suggests that the virus has become permanently established in the United States, all, perhaps, because of a single illegally imported pet bird.1481

The United Nations#8217; FAO describes even the legal trade in wild birds as a “serious potential opportunity for new [bird flu] disease transmission.”1482 Wild birds come from jungles around the world, trapped by nets or glue smeared on branches. Traumatized by long hours confined in trucks and planes, as many as 75% die between capture and sale. Those who do live through the ordeal do so with compromised immune systems crammed into cages with multiple species in holding centers.1483 One former CDC lab director states:
People who have seen the animal holding facilities at London-Heathrow, New York-Kennedy, and Amsterdam-Schiphol [airports] describe warehouses in which every type of bird and other exotic animals are kept cheek by jowl in conditions resembling those in Guangdong food markets, awaiting trans-shipment. There, poultry can come into close contact with wild-caught birds.1484
The USDA is coordinating with U.S. Customs and Border Control to increase vigilance for any movement of cargo or passengers coming from countries where there has been avian influenza H5N1.1485 Vigilance directed at imports from specific countries may provide a false sense of security, however, as traders have been successful in the past in concealing countries of origin by laundering the birds for export through unaffected countries. The case of the British parrot is a perfect example.

In October 2005, the British government announced that H5N1 had been discovered in a parrot imported from South America. What is a South American bird doing with H5N1? The working hypothesis is that the bird contracted the virus while housed in a quarantine facility with birds from Taiwan who were also found to be infected.1486 But Taiwan, like South America, is supposedly free of bird flu. So what happened? That same month, a freighter was caught trying to smuggle into Taiwan from China more than a thousand birds, some of whom were infected with H5N1.1487 Perhaps infected birds were smuggled from China into Taiwan for global export, infecting the Taiwanese birds, who were then legally imported to the U.K. to mix with and infect the South American parrot.1488 The same thing could have happened in the United States, which imports more than 50,000 birds from Taiwan every year.1489

The president of the U.S. National Chicken Council claims that the American ban on imports from affected countries has effectively “locked, bolted and barred the door against anything that could conceivably be carrying the virus.”1490 Allowing the import of birds from any country, though, risks the introduction of birds smuggled into that country from a third, contaminated country. Similarly, waiting until H5N1 has been detected in a country to ban its imports may pose unnecessary risks. A complete ban on importation of birds for the pet trade, regardless of the supposed country of origin, would address this problem. This is the precautionary approach Europe took, passing an immediate interim ban on captive birds from all countries.1491 Such a measure would not be without precedent in the United States.

After the 2003 Midwest monkeypox outbreak, the CDC and the FDA issued a joint emergency executive order prohibiting the importation of all African rodents into the United States.1492 This action was taken less than a month after the first confirmed case.1493 Given the much greater threat bird flu represents, suggestions to broaden the bird importation ban seem reasonable. Both the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians and the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists have called for the federal ban to be expanded to outlaw the import and transport of all exotic wildlife to protect both human and animal health in America.1494

U.S. law requires that all birds imported from overseas undergo a 30-day quarantine,1495 a measure shown successful in catching a bird flu virus in Peking Robins imported from China years ago.1496 Birds smuggled illegally into the United States bypass this firewall. The legal trade in pet birds provides a cover for the illicit trade by providing market opportunities for smugglers to sell their birds. In addition to banning the importation of captive birds, closing down poorly regulated markets where birds are sold—flea market-like bird swaps and fairs—may further reduce the risk.1497 Asked about the possibility of smuggled birds transporting H5N1 into America, the USDA’s chief influenza scientist warned, “We should be more worried than we are.”1498

More than 200 non-governmental organizations representing millions of members have joined to urge a permanent ban on the importation of wild birds into the European Union.1499 The United States has yet to enact even a precautionary temporary ban. The pet bird industry claims that such a ban would have the opposite of the desired effect by driving trade underground and thereby increasing public health risk.1500 Not true, according to an agriculture minister who testifed before Parliament that the current EU ban on bird imports is having the desired effect and there is no evidence to suggest an increase in smuggling.1501 Historical evidence shows the same.1502

In 1992, the U.S. Wild Bird Conservation Act was passed to ban the importation of certain wild-caught birds in an attempt to save endangered species of birds from extinction. The pet industry made the same claims back then that illegal trade would increase, but the law worked as intended.1503 Scientists studying bird populations collectively reported that poaching of birds dropped significantly after passage of the law, and U.S. Customs testified that the number of birds smuggled over the border had dropped as well.

Following the U.S. monkeypox outbreak, the infectious diseases edition of Lancet carried an editorial titled, “Trade in Animals: A Disaster Ignored,” which stressed the links between the trade in wild animals and disease. The editorial concluded:
The practice of taking animals from the wild for the pet trade also should swiftly be brought to an end. There will be fierce opposition to any such moves, and some of the trade will move underground, but if we can abolish such entrenched cultural traditions as burning at the stake and slavery, we can abolish the clear danger to human health of the wildlife trade.1504
Global restrictions on the cockfighting and wild bird trades may play important roles in slowing the proliferation of H5N1, but now that the virus has infected migratory bird species, it may not need our help to spread.1505 The overlap of Asian and North American migratory bird paths in Alaska provide a theoretical flight risk for the virus to enter the western hemisphere as well—outside of any cargo hold.1506 With the possibility of viruses with pandemic potential literally coming out of the blue, closing gaping slats in our picket-fence trade firewall may be merely stopgap measures. It wouldn’t matter how many species a bird flu virus infected in global live animal markets, or how widely the virus traveled by plane, truck, or duck, as long as it remained harmless as it had for millions of years.1507