Each time Oranchimeg Bat sees a migratory bird in her poultry farm just outside the Mongolian capital, it sends shivers down her spine.” These birds carry the H5N1 virus that causes highly pathogenic avian influenza,” she says alarmingly. “We try to keep them

off the farm. They’re bad and can cause my chickens to fall sick.”

Indeed poultry farming is big business for Oranc-himeg who has 4,500 imported broilers from Russia and China, kept indoors in battery cages with artificial lighting. The Mongolian poultry farmer sees an income of over $450 a day from the sale of eggs to supermarkets around Ulan Bator and the last thing she wants is for bird flu to jeopardise that. Oranchimeg’s farm is what the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) would term as a ‘sector two farming type’ where poultry production is on a commercial scale with moderate to high bio-security; where the birds are kept indoors continuously and prevented from being in contact with other poultry or wildlife. Though Oranchimeg’s chickens are protected from wild birds, water from a nearby lake that is pumped to her farm for her poultry is not. And that really worries her.

“I saw a Ministry of Food and Agriculture public service announcement on TV that wild birds could spread the bird flu virus through water from their droppings,” she said emphatically. “Because of this I’m constantly monitoring the health of my chickens and vaccinating them once every three months with the help of Veterinary Department field workers,” she added. According to Prof. D Otgonbaatar, executive director of Mongolia’s Centre of Communicable Diseases with Natural Foci, the H5N1 avian influenza virus has adapted to the environment in such a way that it uses water for survival and to spread. “The water in turn influences movement, social behaviour and migration patterns of water bird species. It is therefore of great importance to know the ecological strategy of influenza virus as well, in order to fully understand this disease and to control outbreaks when they

occur,” he said.

Experts say the danger is that the virus will evolve just slightly into a form that people can easily catch and pass to one another, in which case the transmission rate would soar, causing a pandemic in which millions of people could die. A deep concern in Mongolia is

also the possible cross-species jump of the H5N1 virus to horses.

According to FAO livestock figures, there are about 2.2 million horses in Mongolia that has a human population of 2.79 million. It is widely known that horses are susceptible to two relatively host-specific influenza A virus, H3N8 and H7N7. And this deeply troubles Prof. Otgonbaatar. “The habitat of Mongolian horses and migratory birds overlap as they share common water sources. If H5N1 virus is present in migratory birds there is potential for horses to be exposed to this virus via contaminated water,” he pointed out.

The Mongolian government has started research to see if horses are susceptible to the H5N1 virus with the help of agencies like FAO and funding from the Japanese government. “Urgent surveillance is needed around lake areas which are also shared by horses and we hope to get more funds from international donors to be able to do that efficiently,” added Prof. Otgonbaatar. — IPS