BACKGROUND: Widespread deaths of wild birds from which highly pathogenic avian influenza virus H5N1 has been isolated suggest that the virus continues to be lethal to them. However, asymptomatic carriage by some wild birds could allow birds to spread the virus on migration. Confirmation of such carriage is therefore important for the design of mitigation measures for the disease in poultry.
DISCUSSION: Two recent papers have reported the isolation of H5N1 from a small number of water birds in China and Russia and have concluded that wild birds can spread the viruses over long distances on migration. However, both papers contain weaknesses in the provision of ornithological and associated data that compromise conclusions that can be reached about the role of wild birds in the spread of H5N1. We describe the weaknesses of these studies and highlight the need for improved methodological description and methodology, where appropriate, and further research.
SUMMARY: A rigorous assessment of whether wild birds can carry H5N1 asymptomatically is critical to evaluating the risks of spread by migratory birds on long-distance migration.
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