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Bar Headed Geese Migrate Back to India

Recombinomics Commentary

August 10, 2005

A number of species of birds, especially waterfowl, winter in India, attracted by its tropical weather.

Migratory birds were not thought to be prone to bird flu until an outbreak was detected earlier this year in bar-headed geese at a saltwater lake in Qinghai, China - a breeding site for birds that spend the winter in Southeast Asia, Tibet and India. The virus also infected brown-headed gulls and great black-headed gulls.

Six or seven pairs of bar-headed geese were sighted last week near the Cauvery river in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, marking their arrival this season, said a forestry official, Prasanna Kumar.

"We can't really disturb the birds and test if they have flu, but if they do, we will make sure it doesn't spread to poultry or humans," said Kumar, who works at the Ranganathittu bird sanctuary, 140 kilometres south of Bangalore.

The above comments regarding disturbing the birds offer some insight into why India has never reported H5N1 in birds and people.  They simply don't test.  The bar-headed geese that died in early May at Qinghai Lake probably came from India and probably brought H5N1 with them.  At the time there was a meningitis outbreak in northern India, but no reports of testing for H5N1.

Now, even after H5N1 was detected on bar-headed geese in Qinghai Lake, the returning birds are not being tested.  The asymptomatic birds have high levels of H5N1 in their feces, so collecting samples from bar headed geese would not require disruption.  Since the feces are not being tested, it is unclear how the bird flu prevention program works.

H5N1 antibodies have been detected in poultry workers from India, yet India still maintains that they have no H5N1 in birds or people.

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