Earth is like a very big food web. From the smallest to largest, terrestrial to aquatic, nocturnal to diurnal animals, all lifeforms are interwoven forming a balance in the ecosystem. Incapability to fight diseases is one of the factors why some species decline in numbers or even perish. Birds are no exemption to being sick. And sometimes diseases of animals develop the ability to infect humans. A disease causing a havoc nowadays is the avian flu.
Avian flu, or bird flu, belongs to Type A influenza viruses, which can infect humans and other animals. Avian flu has different subtypes like A(H5N1), A(H9N2), and A(H7N9). The virus thrives primarily in aquatic birds especially in migrating water fowls which then spreads the virus to another wild bird or to domestic poultry (Mittal & Medhi, 2017). Low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) may cause mild effects on birds like ragged feathers and mild respiratory problems. A deadly form which is the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) may infect other organs. Outbreaks in poultries create devastating effect on the economy, international trade, and livelihood of the people (WHO, 2016).
These viruses are different from human influenza virus and does not easily transmit to humans (WHO, 2016). However, there were reported cases of human infection. In Hong Kong, an HPAI strain H5N1 caused the first case of human infection in 1997 killing 60% of the people infected. Since 2003, the virus has spread from Asia to Europe and Africa.
According to the World Health Organization, 41% of human avian flu cases was from Asia. In 2006 in Indonesia, eight members of a family got bird flu and seven of them died. A person having bird flu may experience mild conjunctivitis to severe pneumonia and in a worst-case scenario, death. Majority of the people with bird flu acquired it through direct contact with an infected bird either dead or alive. In 2013, there were several cases of LPAI human infections in China because of the spread of the virus on poultries. These outbreaks resulted to several human and bird deaths (WHO, 2016).
The Philippines has been an avian flu-free country for almost 20 years. But last August 11, the public was alarmed when Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol announced the very first case of avian flu in the country in Luzon specifically in San Luis, Pampanga. Hundreds of thousands of the infected birds – chicken, ducks, quails, pigeons and fighting roosters – died and the rest were slaughtered to contain the spread of the flu. These towns were banned from shipping birds and other poultry products to other parts of the country causing a great loss in the livelihood of the people (Asian Scientist, 2017).
As of now, there are no reported outbreaks in Mindanao. However, we should not let our guard down. Since the virus is carried by birds, its spread may become fast and inevitable. Even the island farthest from the epidemic may become vulnerable.
The danger of spreading an epidemic is much higher today. In the growing poultry industry for instance, birds are confined to a single place and so if one is infected, the disease could infect others rapidly. Spread is also faster in highly dense settlements, particularly in poor urban communities. Globalization also intensified international travels and trade, which enhances the risks of inter-island exchanges of contaminated birds (Davis, 2005).
We should make sure as much as possible that the virus doesn’t spread to Mindanao. Aside from the danger for the people inhabiting the island, another species in danger is the country’s national bird, the Philippine Eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi).
Mindanao is home to many of our Philippine Eagles. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Philippine Eagle as a “critically endangered” species. It is one of the most beautiful and powerful birds in the world which symbolizes the strength of the Filipino people (DENR, 2016). The Philippine Eagle is a top predator and is therefore a key species in the food web. If key species are removed, an ecosystem can collapse. Top predators maintain biological diversity (Paine, 1969).
Efforts to conserve the species includes the establishment of a conservation center in Davao City by the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF). PEF along with other LGUs conserve our eagles through captive breeding and also by monitoring them in the wild (PEF, 2014). The Philippine Eagle as much as any other bird is in danger of getting the flu. As Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said, “You know what really my concern is with the bird flu? It’s the Philippine Eagle. If the bird flu goes there, we may have to kill all the eagles.”
The government is doing its best to prevent this disease from spreading to Visayas and Mindanao. Starting from airports, there will be a quality surveillance of both humans and animals entering or leaving. Blood testing of poultry animals is being done by the Department of Agriculture (DA) Davao as well as in other places of the country. Last August 15 to 16, the Philippine Eagle Center in Malagos, Davao City temporarily closed to assess the conditions of the eagles there (Ocampo, 2017).
But the government cannot do it all alone without the cooperation of the community. We, as Mindanawons, should also take part not just in protecting the human race but also of the life of our Philippine Eagle. Protecting them also means protecting our lives.
For humans to not get the bird flu, one of the best ways is to stay away from sources of the flu. Avoid going to poultry farms or in live animal market if you came from a country with bird flu outbreak. It is best to go to the doctor if you have flu for more than three days. Avoid exposure to dead birds or bird droppings. Simple things like covering the mouth and nose when sneezing can prevent viruses from spreading. Wash hands often and take plenty of liquids especially water. Taking care of oneself like having enough sleep is also essential. There are also vaccines against this flu (Mittal & Medhi, 2017).
History may repeat itself. The avian flu pandemic that happened to other countries may also happen in the Philippines if we neglect all precautionary measures to prevent the disease from spreading. People may say that it’s not a big deal because it rarely infects humans but we must remember that we are all connected in the circle of life. For instance, if we lose the Philippine Eagle, the country’s top predator, all the other organisms under it will be affected, either directly or indirectly. We must protect our eagles as much as we protect ourselves.
These viruses could just be waiting on our backyards evolving and looking for ways to jump not just from bird to bird, bird to swine, bird to humans but also human to human. If we don’t contain the virus now, eventually another contagious strain may evolve from this bird flu which will endanger not just the life of animals but also the life of the whole human race.
Ms. Pauline Leray is a 3rd year BS Biology student from University of the Philippines in Mindanao. She also plays musical instruments, paints landscapes and likes to spend time with family and friends.