The recent furor over Avian Flu has no doubt led many of us to believe that a dangerous worldwide pandemic looms on the horizon. There is little doubt in the scientific community that should the H5N1 strain of the virus mutate into a form easily communicable between humans, the virus will show much greater potency than current pathogenic influenza viruses, owing to the lack of immunity within the population of this new ‘avian’ form.

Yet just what can governments and scientific bodies do to allay fears and combat the disease? In the latter regard, there is precious little which can be done beyond monitoring the condition in the bird populations. So why then is the disease so readily in the popular news? Are we seeing the same variety of overhyped scare-mongering that accompanied the BSE/vCJD crisis of the previous decade? In 2000, the BBC used the headline CJD deaths ‘quadrupled since 1995’ to illustrate a meagre rise in the real term numbers of cases (unfortunately the page can no longer be found on the BBC website, the link uses Google’s cache). Of course, given the way that particular disease manifested itself there was every chance that should an epidemic result, the clock would already be ticking for a vast section of the population.

And so it seems with the case of avian flu. We are all well-informed by the media about the progress of the virus as it works its way around the globe from its origins in south-east Asia. There have already been cases of the disease as far west as France and the Côte d’Ivoire. The response from DEFRA, the successor incarnation of MAFF which so beautifully handled itself during the ‘foot and mouth’ crisis of 2001, has been to act in the only way it knows how: to legislate.

The humble racing pigeon: new harbinger from the Plutonian shores?

Take the impact on pigeon racing. Until recently all pigeon races were banned on the grounds that they would increase the potential for the H5N1 virus to enter the country. This decision has recently been recinded pending further investigation, with of course added restrictions. For example, races taking place further than 400 miles from the south coast of England have been prohibited – this includes many of the major races from Marseilles or Barcelona. Furthermore DEFRA insists that all birds returning from the continent should be quarantined for a seven day period. Of course, if the bird dallies about and doesn’t return for 72 hours, this quarantine period is required to rise to three weeks!

The question begged is just what the utility of all this legislation really is. Anyone who has raced pigeons will realise that quarantining a returning bird could be nigh-on impossible; to do so for seven days might mean it missing the next race, to do so for three weeks and you might as well not bother at all. Clearly these restrictions have been arbitrarily dreamt up by bureaucrats, but will they even make a difference? Of course, the whole thing seems pretty pointless unless DEFRA are also considering producing passports for seagulls and migratory birds – no doubt legislation for this is already in the pipeline. Essentially then, this legislation is being put in place to give DEFRA the appearance of doing something. The fact that this will have no affect on halting the spread of avian flu (which has already reached the UK regardless), and merely disrupts the flow of life for the pigeon fancier amongst others seems irrelevant. MAFF’s mistakes will be avoided this time around.

But the problem of DEFRA’s overdiligence in pointless legislation would not be so bad were they capable of doing their job properly where it is needed. If you ever have to deal with exporting an animal to Russia, that tiny, backwater nation and member of the G8, you will find that DEFRA request you to make contact with the Russian authorities yourself, since the 2926EHC animal import form was allowed to lapse two years ago and no replacement has been agreed upon. Perhaps DEFRA should spend more time doing their job and maintaining worthwhile legislation than dreaming up fanciful, unmanageable and unpoliceable restrictions for the sake of public exposure.