Outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza caused by H5N1 viruses were reported almost simultaneously in eight neighbouring Asian countries between December 2003 and January 2004, with a ninth reporting in August 2004, suggesting that the viruses had spread recently and rapidly. However, they had been detected widely in the region in domestic waterfowl and terrestrial poultry for several years before this, and the absence of widespread disease in the region before 2003, apart from localised outbreaks in the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region (SAR), is perplexing. Possible explanations include limited virus excretion by domestic waterfowl infected with H5N1, the confusion of avian influenza with other serious endemic diseases, the unsanctioned use of vaccines, and the under-reporting of disease as a result of limited surveillance. There is some evidence that the excretion of the viruses by domestic ducks had increased by early 2004, and there is circumstantial evidence that they can be transmitted by wild birds. The migratory birds from which viruses have been isolated were usually sick or dead, suggesting that they would have had limited potential for carrying the viruses over long distances unless subclinical infections were prevalent. However, there is strong circumstantial evidence that wild birds can become infected from domestic poultry and potentially can exchange viruses when they share the same environment. Nevertheless, there is little reason to believe that wild birds have played a more significant role in spreading disease than trade through live bird markets and movement of domestic waterfowl. Asian H5N1 viruses were first detected in domestic geese in southern China in 1996. By 2000, their host range had extended to domestic ducks, which played a key role in the genesis of the 2003/04 outbreaks. The epidemic was not due to the introduction and spread of a single virus but was caused by multiple viruses which were genotypically linked to the Goose/GD/96 lineage via the haemagglutinin gene. The H5N1 viruses isolated from China, including the Hong Kong SAR, between 1999 and 2004 had a range of genotypes and considerable variability within genotypes. The rising incidence and widespread reporting of disease in 2003/04 can probably be attributed to the increasing spread of the viruses from existing reservoirs of infection in domestic waterfowl and live bird markets leading to greater environmental contamination. When countries in the region started to report disease in December 2003, others were alerted to the risk and disease surveillance and reporting improved. The H5N1 viruses have reportedly been eliminated from three of the nine countries that reported disease in 2003/04, but they could be extremely difficult to eradicate from the remaining countries, owing to the existence of populations and, possibly, production and marketing sectors, in which apparently normal birds harbour the viruses.
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