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The global spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 in poultry, wild birds and humans, poses a significant pandemic threat and a serious public health risk. An efficient surveillance and disease control system relies on the understanding of the dispersion patterns and spreading mechanisms of the virus. A space-time cluster analysis of H5N1 outbreaks was used to identify spatio-temporal patterns at a global scale and over an extended period of time. Potential mechanisms explaining the spread of the H5N1 virus, and the role of wild birds, were analyzed. Between December 2003 and December 2006, three global epidemic phases of H5N1 influenza were identified. These H5N1 outbreaks showed a clear seasonal pattern, with a high density of outbreaks in winter and early spring (i.e., October to March). In phase I and II only the East Asia Australian flyway was affected. During phase III, the H5N1 viruses started to appear in four other flyways: the Central Asian flyway, the Black Sea Mediterranean flyway, the East Atlantic flyway and the East Africa West Asian flyway. Six disease cluster patterns along these flyways were found to be associated with the seasonal migration of wild birds. The spread of the H5N1 virus, as demonstrated by the space-time clusters, was associated with the patterns of migration of wild birds. Wild birds may therefore play an important role in the spread of H5N1 over long distances. Disease clusters were also detected at sites where wild birds are known to overwinter and at times when migratory birds were present. This leads to the suggestion that wild birds may also be involved in spreading the H5N1 virus over short distances.
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