Tourism Officials Seek To Calm Bird Flu Fears
By Candia Dames
3 March 06
The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism has flown into damage control mode to avoid any fallout from reports that spread internationally this week that health experts were investigating to determine whether dead birds found on Inagua had avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu.
This came even as Ministry of Agriculture experts said that they had determined that there was no bird flu and the birds – including flamingos – died of other causes like old age.
In the House of Assembly on Wednesday night, Prime Minister Perry Christie told parliamentary colleagues that his government would continue investigations to make absolutely certain that the initial findings were accurate and he was certain that they were.
But reports of the bird flu fears had already spread rapidly around the world as reflected in scores of stories on the Internet.
Director General of Tourism Vernice Walkine admitted on Thursday that those reports had created some jitters.
"We are absolutely concerned about the reports and the nature of the reporting because the fact of the matter is it’s important for Bahamians to understand that there’s no such thing as local news," Ms. Walkine told The Bahama Journal.
"It is entirely possible for every Bahamian at some point or the other to cause a crisis to be created."
She said last week she had spoken to a group of people in Exuma about the impact that words can have on the tourism industry and she believes that mere reports that officials were investigating to determine whether the dead birds had bird flu could have done serious harm.
Ms. Walkine said despite the report experts made that the birds did not have bird flu there are still some people who will remain suspicious about whether tourism and other Bahamian officials were trying to "bury the story".
"I think in the fullness of time it will go away," she said of the story, noting that the tourism business is a very sensitive one.
"People need to feel safe and secure when they travel abroad for vacation and we’ve always promoted ourselves as safe and secure and if you have even a hint of bird flu, [that] could be potentially dangerous."
Ms. Walkine appeared happy to report on Thursday that there had been no cancellations as a result of the story of the bird flu fears.
"It’s important for us to pay attention to these kinds of stories that have that potentially negative impact on the tourism business," she said.
On Thursday, a release issued on the World Wide Web by PRNewswire said that preliminary field reports on the investigation of unexplained deaths of birds on Inagua were exaggerated.
The press release that went out internationally also noted that the senior veterinary officer of the Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources indicated that only five birds were involved in the reported incident on Inagua, reducing the likelihood of an outbreak of avian influenza H5N1.
"It is to be noted that other countries in the region have had similar scares recently and that mortality of birds [has been] attributed to other causes and not the deadly H5N1, which to date has been confirmed in Europe, Asia and Africa," the release added.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported that the United States more than tripled its national flu medication stockpiles as The Bahamas tested whether the dead birds had carried the Western Hemisphere’s first cases of avian influenza.
That same report said that the U.S. government on Wednesday ordered additional courses of flu treatment, raising the country’s National Strategic Stockpile to almost 20 million courses of treatment.
Meanwhile, veterinary experts said that the presence of the deadly H5N1 would have decimated the large flock of flamingoes and other birds on that island.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources assured that it will continue to investigate all reports of unexplained bird mortality.
It said that the birds involved in the incident appear to have been dead for several days, and the senior veterinary officer reported that there had been no new incidents of avian mortality reported on Inagua.