Declan Butler, reporter This is the personal blog of Declan Butler, a senior reporter at Nature. All views expressed here are mine, and not those of Nature. Contact me at

April 16, 2006

Easter avian flu map update

Map update

This weekend’s update adds a minor change to make it easier to see the latest human cases and animal outbreaks. The initial screen will by default only show — in yellow — those events that have occured since the last map update (see screenshots below). Download the new maps directly to Google Earth by clicking here. For a more detailed explanation of the new maps, click here.

To see the full maps of all events, simply click on the human cases, and animal oubreaks, 2003-2006, folders (see ‘Classical’ screenshot below).

Let me know in the blog comments if you find this change useful.

Thanks here to Gaëlle Lahoreau, who now takes care of a large part of the effort of keeping the maps updated.

BTW; A couple of people using Google Earth for the first time contacted me as they couldn’t open the map files. The problem it turned out was that, for some reason, their PC had not associated Google Earth with *.kmz and *.kml files; the fix was easy — they just had to associate these files with GE; there is a quick explanation of how to do this here.

Screenshots of new maps
The first screen now shows just new events.
New cases

Clicking on the 2003-2006 folders brings back the classical view of the maps
Old cases

Other stuff
In passing, I’ve written, or had a hand in, a few pieces in Nature recently on avian flu.
See “Bird-flu experts question advice on eating poultry,” for a piece where top flu experts criticise official advice on the safety of eating poultry and eggs as being more reassuring than the scientific evidence allows. Official advice typically says there is ‘absence of evidence,’ but as the scientists point out, this is not ‘evidence of absence’ of risk.

I’ve also a series of short interviews with people around the world directly involved in the fight against avian flu — “From the front lines” — which provides an interesting insight into how different countries are handling the crisis.

Nature also recently ran an editorial — “Dreams of flu data” — which slammed top flu scientists for hoarding data in these terms:

“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.”

On the same topic, see also, “Shared data are key to beating threat from flu“. The same editorial criticized the lack of IT and GIS sophistication in avian flu surveillance, compared to industry standards in other areas, something which is all the more difficult to accept given the scale of the challenge, both for the poultry industry, and public health:

“The reporting of avian-flu cases has recently improved in speed and openness, but the quality of the available data remains dire, and biological samples are insufficient. A typical WHO update will give the number of new cases from a country and, on a good day, the age, sex and rough location of each case. But there is little information on familial case clusters, and typically no clinical data. What is worse, these few data are in text form strewn across hundreds of individual WHO web pages.

Data on outbreaks in poultry are even more sparse, and mostly come from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). Someone at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is maintaining a file of cumulative bird outbreaks from OIE and other data, and is making it available to researchers and journalists. But it is incomplete, lacks good location data and contains errors.”

On the scientific front, we also published a Commentary by Albert Osterhaus and colleagues, on the risk of cats and other mammals spreading H5N1 — “Feline friend or potential foe? — and a critical scientific paper: “Avian flu: Influenza virus receptors in the human airway.”

I’d reported back in January on this same issue of receptors, in relation to the mutations in human cases in Turkey:

“There are two subtypes of receptors in the human respiratory tract: alpha 2.3, which occurs mainly in the lower respiratory tract; and alpha 2.6, which occurs mainly in the nose and throat. Human flu viruses typically show a preference for the 2.6 receptors, whereas H5N1 strains typically prefer 2.3.

This is good news for those worried about bird flu, since human-to-human transmission is thought to be more likely via droplets coughed from the nose and throat than from infections lower down. But the mutation found in the Turkey viruses is also known to be able to increase the affinity for H5N1 to the 2.6 receptors, points out Sylvie van der Werf, head of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics of Respiratory Viruses at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France.

Van der Werf adds that this affinity will, however, be affected by other genetic changes in the virus, which at present are an unknown factor. “

Apart from that, I’d the pleasure at the beginning of April of sharing a podium in Boston with Tim O’Reilly, and Jim Ostell of NCBI for a conference session on “Web 2.0 in science.” See here for a brief write up of the session.

I’m now off for a week’s vacation in the French countryside…


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