The highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza has been detected in at least 55 countries in Asia, Europe, and Africa. This often fatal disease is of pressing concern because it can be transmitted from birds to humans, although such transmissions have been rare so far. Unfortunately, according to a Roundtable article in the November 2006 BioScience, the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), critical information about incidence of the disease in wild birds--even the species of the infected bird--is often recorded inaccurately or not recorded at all. The deficiencies in data collection, the authors write, "can lead to unwarranted assumptions and conclusions that in turn affect public perceptions, practical control and management measures, and the disposition of resources."
Bird flu is typically studied by veterinarians and virologists. The article's authors, Ma Yasu, Chris J. Feare, Leon Bennun, and Wolfgang Fiedler, made use of the Aiwatch (avian influenza watch) e-mail forum to gather information for their article from sources worldwide. They describe several instances in which the species of an infected wild bird was incorrectly or inadequately recorded--sometimes just as "wild duck," for example--and others in which the bird's sex and age were misidentified. Likewise, reported details of the location and time of discovery of an infected bird often lack specificity, yet they are crucial for a good understanding of the virus's spread. Information about capture and sampling methods and other species in the vicinity of an infected bird has also often been inadequately described. The authors end their article with a plea for greater involvement by ornithologists and ecologists in H5N1 research and monitoring.