GIS, Avian Influenza and Data Hoarding

Avian flu (also “bird flu”, “avian influenza”, etc), is a flu from Influenza A viruses that have adapted to birds. As of 2006, “avian flu” refers to a particular subtype of Influenza A, H5N1, currently the world’s major flu pandemic threat.

“Though human-to-human transmission of avian flu still has not been confirmed scientifically, you need to take precautions while covering the issue in the field,”

Professor Luhur Suroso.

While human-to-human transmission has not been confirmed (although suspected in the death of a family in Indonesia) the mortality rate for humans who do contract it is high, around 50%. The highly pathogenic form spreads rapidly through flocks of poultry. The disease has a mortality rate that can reach 90-100% in poultry, often within 48 hours. Because of this the disease is of immediate concern to the poultry industry and to conservators of native birdlife.

Through June 13, 2006, outbreaks of influenza A (H5N1) viruses (avian influenza) among migratory birds and poultry flocks were associated with severe human illness or death in 10 countries (Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam).


A recent outbreak involved 8 members of an extended family in Kubu Sembelang, 7 of whom died, a patient fatality rate seen nowhere else. Due to difficulties of logistics and control, health officials must be concerned with the possibility of a major outbreak in a country such as Indonesia.

Breaking the silence: “If this was a test to see whether Indonesia could contain a virus, they failed miserably”

from Declan Butler’s Blog

Declan Butler’s post is really about a more important issue for scientists — the lack of availability of H5N1 sequence data in public archives.

And last, let’s touch on the interesting question of sharing sequence data — see again Dreams of flu data (Nature). The sequences of virus from the victims of the Indonesia cluster have not been made public. Why not? In the article, there is much buck passing among the three actors involved.

So apparently, noone is opposed to depositing the sequences in Genbank immediately, but noone is taking the decision to do so. In the Nature editorial, “Dreams of flu data” we argued: “Genetic data are also lacking. When samples are sequenced, the results are usually either restricted by governments or kept private to an old-boy network of researchers linked to the WHO, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the FAO. This is a far cry from the Human Genome Project, in which all the data were placed in the public domain 24 hours after sequencing. Many scientists and organizations are also hoarding sequence data, often for years, so they can be the first to publish in academic journals. With the world facing a possible pandemic, such practices are wholly unacceptable. Nature and its associated journals are not alone in supporting the rapid prior exposure of data when there are acute public-health necessities. ”

Is it possible that hoarding of H5N1 sequence data could have fatal if not catastrophic consequences?

The Centers for Disease Control is hoarding critical data about the genetics of influenza viruses. Normally, this data would be made available to the scientific community as a matter of course. Now, as we face the prospect of a global influenza pandemic, the CDC refuses to share this data.


This post is meant to make the point that sharing data is not just an academic exercise. Even with 227 confirmed cases of bird flu and 129 deaths as of 16th June 2006 (Reuters) the threat is largely restricted to poulty farmers and wildlife. That could change if H5N1 mutated and became human-to-human transmissible while retaining its lethality, which is the concern with the Indonesian cluster.

The following resources are available on Avian Influenza for Geographic Information Systems on this site.

  1. Post on GoogleEarths Avian Influenza maps by Declan Butler
  2. Controversial Topics Lists the new information on Avian Influenza emerging from nightly searches for new images, web pages, videos, news articles and scientific articles.
  3. Coming soon! Predictive maps of outbreaks and human deaths with diagnostic analytics from WhyWhere.

Using predictive analytics to answer the questions about what factors affect the probability of outbreaks of Avian Influenza (Why?), and where are the next likely outbreaks (Where?)

will be the subjects of a forthcoming post.


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