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Experts see Alaska as U.S. front against bird flu

Bird experts working in some of the most remote areas of Alaska have begun checking migrating birds for avian influenza to see if they are spreading the feared virus out of Asia.
/ Source: Reuters

Bird experts working in some of the most remote areas of Alaska have begun checking migrating birds for avian influenza to see if they are spreading the feared virus out of Asia.

A team heads off later this week for the Alaskan Peninsula to test Steller’s eiders, a type of duck, for the virus, U.S. Geological Survey experts said. Other teams have already begun testing geese and ducks in other refuges, taking advantage of regular ecological studies to test birds migrating from Asia for the H5N1 virus.

“We think that Alaska is likely to be the front line,” said Hon Ip, a virologist at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Other states are vulnerable, too, he said.

“There are birds that fly directly across the Pacific from Southeast Asia to our western states like California, Oregon and Washington,” Ip added in a telephone interview.

The H5N1 avian influenza virus, which re-emerged in China in 2003, has caused the death or destruction of more than 100 million birds across Asia, from Japan to Russia’s Siberia. Migrating birds in China and Mongolia have been found to be infected with the virus.

So far it has killed more than 50 people, although it does not easily infect humans. Experts fear it will eventually acquire the ability to spread easily from person to person and cause a global pandemic of exceptionally deadly influenza.

Migrating birds are prime suspects
No one is sure how it is spreading, but migrating birds are a prime suspect. Officials fear birds such as ducks and geese could bring the virus to Western Europe, Africa and the Middle East over coming months.

The USGS wants to help keep an eye out for it in North America.

“We also worry that birds will stop off in some of the U.S. territories in the Pacific like Guam, and Hawaii,” Ip said. He is especially concerned about endangered species of birds.

So the USGS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have piggybacked avian influenza surveys onto already scheduled visits to examine certain species, band them and track their movements.

“We have chosen sites and species of birds that we think are the most likely ones that contact birds over in the Russian Siberian side that have the potential to migrate and make contact with birds in North America,” Ip said.

Dirk Derksen, a wildlife biologist at USGS in Anchorage, said teams have already sampled a sea goose species called the Pacific Black Brant in northern Alaska’s national petroleum reserve and Emperor geese in western Alaska’s Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

No evidence of virus yet
Biologists and their helpers, in some cases Eskimo youth from nearby villages, catch the birds, which are helpless while molting. They put a leg band on them and while at it flip them over to take a swab from the cloaca to see if the birds are carrying virus in their feces.

These samples are sent to Ip’s lab in Madison for testing.

“There is no evidence at all of any disease in any of the species that we sampled here,” Derksen said in a telephone interview.

Experts say the key to spreading influenza would be healthy birds that are not sickened by the virus. If the virus kills an animal quickly, it is less likely to spread it.

Derksen said the teams are also scheduled to check ducks called Northern pintails on the Cook Inlet in south central Alaska near Anchorage.

“They breed across North America and they breed across Asia and there is a demonstrated link between pintails that have been marked in California and a migration across the Bering strait to eastern Russia,” Derksen said.

Other species now being sampled include shore birds called bar-tailed godwits and sharp-tailed sandpipers.