Wild migratory birds seem to have become the world’s public enemy number one since the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus spreading in Asia was detected this month as far west as European Russia, Turkey and Romania.

Mindful that the geographical spread appears to be tracking migratory routes of wild birds, some people in parts of Asia have begun avoiding bird markets and sanctuaries, and are even giving chicken dishes a miss.

Last week, students who visited Hong Kong’s Mai Po wetlands, a crucial feeding stopover for wild birds on the north-south migratory route, were seen wearing protective masks.

But experts and scientists are calling for calm, saying the biggest risk to human health rests not in wild birds, but poultry because they live among people, particularly in Asia and Africa.

What’s important now is to stem the spread in poultry, and to stop it from becoming entrenched, or endemic, experts say.

“Just the introduction per se (of the virus from wild birds to poultry) is not a major risk but if it becomes endemic, that is the problem,” said Malik Peiris, a top virologist in Hong Kong who has battled the bird flu virus since 1997, when it made its first known jump to humans in Hong Kong, killing six people.

“In terms of human health, the predominant risk is poultry because that is where there is significant exposure to the human population. The direct risk of migrating birds (infecting) humans is negligible — it’s like being knocked down by a bus.”

By Tan Ee Lyn

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