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Scientists look north for first U.S. bird flu case

In about three weeks, waterfowl, shorebirds and songbirds will start arriving in Alaska to begin mating. That’s when and where government scientists expect the first case of bird flu to show up in the United States.
An emperor goose, rarely spotted in Anchorage, Alaska, spends time at one of the city's parks. Government scientists expect to find the first case of bird flu in the United States in Alaska. Marc Lester / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In about three weeks, waterfowl, shorebirds and songbirds will start arriving in the Alaska Peninsula, the Yukon Delta and the westernmost Aleutian Islands to begin mating. That’s when and where government scientists expect the first case of bird flu to show up in the United States.

To screen the birds for the deadly virus, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska’s Fish and Game Department are setting up more than 50 remote backcountry camps accessible mainly by float planes or boats.

More than 40 species of waterfowl and shorebirds are considered susceptible to infection by a highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu virus that’s killed more than 100 people, mostly in Asia. It also has killed or led to the slaughter of more than 200 million chickens, ducks, turkeys and other domestic fowl in Asia, Europe and Africa.

Species migrating from Asia across the Bering Strait — considered the most likely carriers of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus — include eiders, pintails, geese, long-tailed ducks, dunlins, sandpipers and plovers. There’s also concern about gulls, terns and falcons.

$29 million surveillance program
Rick Kearney, wildlife program coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey, described the $29 million surveillance program to collect and sample 100,000 birds — 15,000 to 20,000 in Alaska alone — as an early warning system for poultry producers and health officials in the lower 48 states.

“If we find it this summer, it could provide them with several weeks of warning,” he said. “We’re looking in all places, but we’re looking most intently in the place we most expect to find it, Alaska.”

Kearney is co-author of the joint surveillance plan created by the Interior and Agriculture departments and the state of Alaska for use in all 50 states.

The plan mentions that the H5N1 virus also could arrive in the U.S. through a smuggled chicken or duck, an infected traveler, black-market trade in exotic birds or even an act of bioterrorism, but it says the most likely carrier will be a migrating wild bird.

Government officials say there’s no known case of virus being passed from a wild bird to a person and no one knows whether wild bird-to-person transmission is possible.

Thousands of birds to be tested
At each of the more than 50 camps in Alaska, several government biologists, volunteers and contractors stationed for days or weeks at a time will test living birds, those dead from unknown causes and hunter-killed birds such as those taken during Alaska Native subsistence hunts.

They’ll collect the samples by swabbing both ends of a bird’s digestive system for mucous and feces. At least 200 birds from each sample population are needed to detect the virus accurately.

After Alaska, surveillance priorities are a matter of geography: the Pacific flyway from the Canadian border to southern California and then east to the Central, Mississippi and Atlantic flyways.

The swabs will be sent to one of 40 veterinary labs around the country certified by the government as capable of testing them for the bird flu virus. Most are state-run or associated with universities.

Ground zero for the testing program is the Interior Department’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., which alone is expected to handle 12,000 to 15,000 samples.

It could be a week or so before sample results are known. From there, the plan calls for confirmatory testing to be done by Agriculture Department labs in Ames, Iowa, and Athens, Ga.

“If highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus becomes established in North America, the likelihood of rapid and diffusive spread across the continent is high,” according to the surveillance plan Kearney co-authored with Thomas DeLiberto, wildlife disease coordinator for the Agriculture Department.

In that case, the plan calls for focusing on urban zoos, parks and lakes where the highest concentrations of people could come into contact with contaminated water and waterfowl. It also targets ponds, lakes and waterfowl management areas around the biggest poultry producers.