Flu threat spreads opposition to cockfighting, postal bird shipment
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2005:
RALEIGH, MADISON, HONG KONG, HANOI–With the H5N1 strain
of avian influenza, potentially deadly to humans, striking
throughout Asia and threatening to hit Europe, North Carolina
Department of Agriculture food and drug safety administrator Joe
Reardon on August 18, 2005 warned a gathering of state and federal
officials that U.S. Postal Service regulations governing transport of
live birds “are inadequate and present great potential for
contamination of the poultry industry.”
Reardon estimated that each day between 1,000 and 3,000 game
birds, fighting cocks, and other fowl enter North Carolina via the
Postal Service. More than 70%, Reardon said, have not undergone
health inspection. The uninspected birds are often in proximity to
birds in transit to and from the 4,500 North Carolina poultry farms.
Birds involved in human food production are inspected, but may then
be exposed to disease before reaching their destination.
North Carolina agriculture commissioner Steve Troxler and
U.S. Representative Walter Jones (R-Farmville) pledged to pursue
legislation which would require all birds sent by mail to have a
Also responding to the risk of cockfighters spreading H5N1 or
other diseases potentially injurious to the poultry industry, the
North Carolina legislature on August 21 sent to Governor Mike Easley
a bill to make cockfighting a felony.
The National Chicken Council, representing the commercial
poultry industry, has joined the Humane Society of the U.S. and more
than 300 law enforcement agencies in supporting a pending federal
bill that would raise from a misdemeanor to a felony the penalty for
transporting birds interstate in connection with illegal fighting.
Cockfighting is now illegal in all states except New Mexico
and Louisiana–although Montgomery District Judge William Lane of
Mount Sterling, Kentucky, put enforcement of the Kentucky law in
question on August 15 by dismissing charges against about 450 of more
than 500 people who were arrested at an April 16, 2005 cockfight.
Lane pointed to language in the Kentucky law against attending an
animal fight that specifies fights between four-legged animals.
Animal advocates have sought to outlaw cockfighting for
longer than there has been an organized humane movement, chiefly to
prevent cruelty but also in part to stop the spread of diseases such
as Newcastle, which have historically been controlled by killing
Animal advocates have argued for tightening U.S. Postal
Service regulations pertaining to live bird transport at least since
1989, when letter carrier Sue Ellen Williams, as corresponding
secretary for the Bristol Humane Society in Bristol, Virginia, won
a favorable but often ignored amendment to the rules for handling
birds who cannot be delivered promptly.
The H5N1 avian flu strain was first identified after it
killed a three-year-old boy in Hong Kong on May 21, 1997, but is
believed to have occurred earlier in southern China. H5N1 is the
only known flu strain that can cross directly from birds to humans,
without an intermediary host such as pigs.
As many as 100 million domestic birds have either died of
H5N1 or have been culled in futile “stamping out” exercises since the
disease began rapidly spreading in Southeast Asia during fall 2003.
United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization chief
veterinary officer Joseph Domenech warned at a July 4, 2005
conference in Kuala Lumpur that, “In some countries that are heavily
infected, there is no way to get rid of the disease with pure
stamping out methods, and vaccination must be used.”
At the time, H5N1 was believed to have been stamped out in
Thailand, mostly by ruthless culls. Millions of birds were burned
or buried alive–but cockfighters resisted any measures that
restricted their activity.
Only one day before Thai officials were due to declare the
nation officially free of H5N1, 90 days after the last reported new
case, H5N1 reappeared among gamecocks in early July at four
locations in Suphan Buri.
Estimating that only about 400,000 of the national gamecock
flock of about one million have been registered, in compliance with
a year-old edict meant to track and control H5N1, the Thai interior
ministry ordered provincial governors to close all cockfighting
By July 14, under organized political pressure from
cockfighters, the order was amended into a plan to discuss
regulation of cockfighting. Already, new H5N1 outbreaks had also
occurred in Indonesia, where 21 out of 30 provinces have been hit so
far. The Medan daily newspaper Kompas reported that a smuggled Thai
gamecock might have taken H5N1 to North Sumatra. “We have identified
the owner of the fighting cock and he has admitted to smuggling it,”
a local official told Kompas.
Outbreaks also recurred in Japan, beginning in June. Some
previous Japanese outbreaks have been linked to cockfighting.
H5N1 reached Kazakhstan and Russia in late July 2005, and
appeared in Mongolia during the first days of August. By August 25,
H5N1 had hit poultry farms in 46 Russian settlements and was
suspected in bird deaths at 80 more sites, scattered across seven
regions of southern Russia, some as far west as the Ural mountains.
H5N1 was also found in a wild duck shot near the village of
VerkhKaraguzh in the Altai Republic of Siberia.
In addition, H5N1 had appeared in six regions of Kazakhstan.
Public officials throughout Asia blamed wild waterfowl for
spreading H5N1. Blaming the domestic poultry industry was
sufficiently unpopular that on May 30 the University of Hong Kong and
Shantou University halted studies of H5N1, under Chinese agriculture
ministry pressure. University of Hong Kong virologist Guan Yi and
team had just published articles in the journals Nature and Science
concluding that an H5N1 outbreak at the Qinghai Lake Nature Reserve
in 2004 resulted from “a single introduction, most probably from
poultry in southern China.”
“Reports of the role of wild birds as the cause of new bird
flu outbreaks occur almost daily, but at the present time there is
little evidence to support such statements,” commented Hon S. Ip of
the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center in
“In many of the areas of recent outbreaks,” Ip pointed out
on August 24 via the Society for Infectious Diseases’ electronic
bulletin board ProMed, “there is a thriving trade in live birds and
poultry products. There is no evidence of sustained human-to-human
transmission ,” Ip acknowledged, “but because the virus can survive
in poultry droppings for up to two weeks, movement of people and
contaminated farm equipment can rapidly spread it. Much has been
made of the recent pattern of spread as indicative of avian
migration,” Ip concluded, “but many ornithologists have indicated
that the spread of H5N1 does not fit with the known behavior of the
bird species in that area of the world.”
A paper entitled Origin and evolution of highly pathogenic
H5N1 avian influenza in Asia, co-authored by seven United Nations
Food & Agriculture Organization scientists, published in the August
6 edition of Veterinary Record, argued that “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.”
Added ProMed moderator Armon Shimshony, an associate
professor at the Koret School of Veterinary Medicine, Hebrew
University of Jerusalem, “During early stages of the outbreak, it
was argued that the pattern of spread strongly suggested that the
virus was carried by people smuggling poultry, rather than by
migratory birds. Though there were reports of mass die-offs of rare
birds in zoos in Thailand, regular monitoring of migratory birds in
Thailand did not reveal the virus. In regions with big outbreaks in
poultry, local wild birds were affected; the question remained as
to whether their infection did not originate from the domestic birds.”
ANIMAL PEOPLE pointed out through ProMed on August 27 that
cockfighting is widely practiced in Central Asia, including
Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and nearby parts of Russia, and that a
common Central Asian variant of cockfighting pits freshly captured
wild songbirds against each other. The birds are often held by
threads while they fight. To avoid violating the Islamic prohibition
on keeping wild birds captive, both birds may be released as soon as
one bird emerges dominant enough to satisfy the bettors.
Wild bird fights often occur in the same pits as cockfights,
offering a quick vector for disease transmission to other wild birds.
With H5N1 close enough to menace Europe, the Dutch
agriculture ministry on August 22 ordered that all free-ranging
captive bird flocks be brought indoors. European Union officials
objected that the Dutch order appeared to contravene EU law,
contending that such orders may be issued only by the European
Commission after consultation with experts from all 25 EU member
Factory-style poultry producers have argued that preventing
H5N1 is a reason for raising birds entirely in confinement, but H5N1
has also hit many confinement poultry barns in Southeast Asia.
Workers with clothing contaminated from attending cockfights are
suspected of transmitting the disease from barn to barn.
The pharmaceutical maker Roche donated three million
treatment courses of the antiviral drug oseltamivir to the World
Health Organization, to enable WHO to respond quickly if H5N1
appears to be crossing over from birds to humans.
The H5N1-fighting capability of the other leading antiviral
drug, amantadine, may have been compromised by illegal use in
poultry. Resistant H5N1 strains have reportedly been found in
Thailand and Vietnam. The Chinese ministry of agriculture warned
farmers against using amantadine in June, after denying a
Washing-ton Post report that it had encouraged giving amantadine to
As using amantadine would not be cost-effective in poultry,
Shimshony of ProMed asked whether the alleged illegal administration
might be “undertaken to protect selectively expensive birds, such as
fighting cocks.” No response was posted.
French agriculture minister Renate Kunast called for a
crackdown on illegal bird trafficking. Edir Delhaye of the French
environmentalist party Cap21 noted the proximity of free-range
poultry farms to heavily hunted seasonal concentrations of migratory
waterfowl. Shooting birds near a free-range poultry farm would
increase the risk of an infected bird falling among a domestic flock.
Despite that verity, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass
reported on August 17 that local officials in Irkutsk, Siberia, and
Penza, Russia, had opened the waterfowling season early,
ostensibly so that hunters could kill the alleged threat from
migratory birds. Shimshony called that logic “eyebrow-raising.”
Vietnam, with 42 of the 61 known human H5N1 fatalities, on
August 29 began trying to vaccinate all 4.2 million poultry and
domestic waterfowl in Hanoi. Deputy director of agriculture and
rural development Dao Duy Tam told Agence France-Presse that 50% of
the waterfowl transported into Hanoi and 10% of those raised locally
had tested positive for H5N1.
The Hanoi vaccination drive is to be a test of strategies for
trying to vaccinate all 200 million domestic chickens and ducks in
Vietnam between September 15 and September 30, following the
examples of China and Indonesia, where vaccination efforts are still
incomplete. Vietnam accelerated plans for the mass vaccination after
H5N1 was found to have killed three of 23 Owston civets who were
raised in a cage at Cuc Phuong National Park in Ninh Binh province.
Why the three civets became ill but not the other 20 was unknown.
They died in June but the cause was not confirmed until the third
week in August.
Health officials in Ben Tre province, Vietnam, meanwhile
learned how one of the most recent human victims contracted H5N1:
the 30-year-old man ate sick gamecocks, believing like many other
residents of his village that they would be immune.