Sunday, December 18, 2005

News - Expert: Bird Flu's Threat Is `Basically Zero' | theledger.com


Researchers and health agencies continue to sound the alarm about avian flu, and Dr. Gary Butcher, an expert on poultry medicine and disease at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, thinks he knows why.

"The agenda here is pretty obvious," he said. "People want grant money. This is a bonanza."

Butcher, who advises agricultural ministries and poultry companies around the world, is Florida's lone poultry veterinarian. He has also emerged as a leading naysayer on the prospects for a avian flu pandemic.

Butcher insists the likelihood that the H5N1 avian flu virus in Asia will trigger a pandemic is practically nil. But the fear-mongering will continue, he said, as long as people see a potential for financial and career gain in it.

He thinks that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is overstating the threat posed by avian flu to justify its budget, and to a large extent, its existence. The World Health Organization, he said, has issued its warnings for similar reasons.

"They're under intense pressure," he said of the WHO. "They've had so many problems in the past, problems with internal corruption. . . . They're in dire need of new funding and this is their golden goose, as long as they can keep it going."

Butcher knows his words sound harsh, he said, but there is a war on. "This is a full-on war against agriculture," Butcher said -- and he is firing back.

BUTCHER'S BEEF

Historically, pandemics have tended to recur every 20 to 40 years. The last occurred in 1986, causing about 34,000 deaths in the United States. In November, President George W. Bush asked Congress for $7.1 billion to prepare for the next pandemic flu, pointing to the H5N1 virus that numerous health experts have identified as a potential pandemic threat.

Butcher does not doubt the world is in for another pandemic, he said. But the constant hum of warnings in this country about the avian flu irks him -- especially since influenza has long infected about 30 percent of the native wild duck population when it migrates annually to Canada. As the weather turns cold, the birds migrate south through the United States. "This occurs every year," Butcher said. "We very, very rarely have infections spread to commercial poultry."

The H5N1 virus is a much more serious strain, he said, but it poses no greater threat of human infection.

"The threat is basically zero," he said. "We're spending all of our attention on this (virus), and another one may sneak up on us."

Realistically, no one knows what is going to happen, said Dr. Sherrill Davison, director of the avian medicine and pathology laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania. "We're having, in the poultry industry, differences of opinion about the risks we're seeing."

If the virus did penetrate the food supply, she said, cooking it would kill it anyway.

CONFLICTING INTERESTS?

Cooking guidelines appear on the World Health Organization's list of safeguards against avian flu infection. Released Dec. 5, the recommendations include not eating raw poultry and washing one's hands after handling raw bird parts.

The guidelines are accurate, Butcher said, but have little to do with avian flu.

"There's nothing new here," he said, explaining that every recommendation is a long-standing general safety guideline for handling poultry. Linking them to the flu, he said, is inappropriately suggestive.

The WHO's Web site also warns that the H5N1 avian flu has killed half of the people it has infected. That's true, Butcher said, but given the fact that the virus has only infected roughly 130 people, that 50 percent statistic paints a misleading picture.

"The guy who wrote this really wants to make this sound like a big thing," Butcher said, reading through the WHO's "frequently asked questions' about avian flu.

"Dr. Butcher is certainly entitled to his opinion," WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng said in an e-mailed response. "We clearly do not share it."

H5N1 has fulfilled two of three scientific criteria for a pandemic virus, Cheng said. All that is left, she said, is for it to transmit easily between people.

She acknowledged that speaking openly about a possible bird flu pandemic can incite fear, but said it is the WHO's responsibility to warn about the risks.

As for the safety guidelines, she said, the WHO has been deluged by requests for practical advice on minimizing the risk of infection.

"There are many uncertainties about the situation, which the WHO has tried to explain," she said. "We do not know if H5N1 will spark the next pandemic. We know only that, scientifically, it looks to be the most likely candidate."

Butcher disagrees. The H5N1 virus kills the birds it infects, he said, which denies it the opportunity to mutate into something easily transmissible among humans. And because the U.S. poultry industry keeps its birds indoors, he said, they are highly unlikely to contract the virus from infected migratory birds.

The veterinarian reserved some of his harshest criticism for the USDA, which he thinks is overstating the threat to justify its intensifying bird surveillance programs and gain funding and influence. "They're trying to keep (avian flu) in the spotlight," he said.

"Everyone's keeping it in the spotlight," said Madelaine Fletcher, spokeswoman for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service division of the USDA.

Fletcher declined to respond to Butcher's accusations about the agency's agenda. "We've tried to keep biosecurity and sick birds in the spotlight so people know what to look for, but that's because our mission is to keep these (viruses) out of the country."

Critics could argue that Butcher has his own agenda, since he is protecting the interests of an industry that hires him for consulting services.

When he is not teaching and researching in Gainesville, Butcher often travels as a private consultant to Panama, Russia and other countries, advising governments and poultry companies whose survival and profits are threatened by public fears of bird flu.

Butcher is unapologetic about defending the industry. In his travels, he said, he sees the evidence of serious economic harm caused by misplaced fear. "Poultry consumption is down 50 percent in Europe," he said. "It's a disaster."

Expert: Bird Flu's Threat Is `Basically Zero' theledger.com

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