Opening Pandora's Box at the roof of the world: Landscape, climate and avian influenza (H5N1).


Independent Scholar, Global Health and The Environment, 320 SE 62nd Ave., Portland, Oregon, United States. Electronic address: [Email]


The purpose of this case study is to examine how environmental disruption and agricultural practices act synergistically to create a perfect storm for the spread of avian influenza. Actors in this case study include the vast permafrost landscape of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau; a wild goose that migrates over the Himalayas; the highest altitude railway in the world that traverses the plateau into Tibet; and an avian virus (H5N1). Commencing in 2001, tens of thousands of railway workers travelled to remote regions of the plateau to work on the railway. In order to feed and shelter these workers, the Chinese government established captive-bred goose farms as a source of high protein food. Beginning in 2005 and continuing in subsequent years, Qinghai Lake was the scene for the unprecedented appearance of avian influenza among migratory geese. This was a key moment in the global spread of H5N1 to poultry on three continents. Remote sensing technology suggested an ecological pathway for the transfer of avian viruses among chickens, captive-bred geese, and wild geese. Within a region experiencing rapid climate change, Qinghai Lake is warming even faster than the global average. This may relate to the persistent outbreaks of avian flu strains from Qinghai during the past twelve years. Globally, exponential increases in bird flu outbreaks are not merely a matter of chance mutations in flu viruses but also a result of antecedent social and environmental factors. The Qinghai case study provides real-world examples that bring these factors into sharp focus.