U.S. Steps up Bird-Flu Monitoring for Migrating Birds
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Every year, nearly seven million birds migrate between Asia and Alaska. Federal officials worry that this spring, some of those birds may carry H5N1, the bird flu virus, into North America. So they're mounting the largest bird surveillance project ever to detect the virus when it arrives.
NPR's Richard Knox reports.
RICHARD KNOX reporting:
The other day, government biologists posted a roster of bird species that can be infected by the H5N1 virus.
Mr. PAUL FLINT (Biologist The brown crake, the kook(ph), the common Morehand(ph), oriental magpie robins, jungle crows, house crows, black durangoes(ph), whatever those are.
KNOX: Paul Flint is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Anchorage. He says almost 90 bird species are prone to H5N1. The intensified surveillance project will track about a third of them. Soon, Paul Flint and hundreds of other field workers will pull on their hip boots and wade into some of the most remote bird habitats on the planet.
Among other things, Flint will be taking fecal samples from goslings on the nest.
Mr. FLINT: The logic there is that the goslings don't have an acquired immune response at that point. They've never been exposed to these kinds of viruses and, therefore, they're thought to be a very sensitive indicator of the presence of diseases and virus in the population as a whole.
KNOX: The new surveillance program will sample between 75,000 and 100,000 wild birds. That's more than eight times the number tested for avian flu viruses since 1998. Sue Haseltine, the head biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, the federal agency responsible for monitoring wildlife, she's organizing the hunt for the Asian bird flu virus.
Ms. SUE HASELTINE (Chief Biologist, U.S. Geological Survey): I believe this will come to North America, based on the last two- or three-year trajectory of its movement. I think that's inevitable.
KNOX: There are lots of different ways the virus could hitch a ride to this hemisphere. Some birds winter in Asia, where the virus is known to be, then migrate across the Bering Sea in spring.
Ms. HASELTINE: So our birds that breed in Alaska in the spring may indeed have picked up some of this virus over the wintering cycle and may be headed back to Alaska now.
KNOX: Or birds such as the emperor goose that winter in Alaska and breed along the Siberian coast might pick it up there and carry it back in the fall. Or, since the virus can live for several weeks in chilly environments, North American birds could get infected from wetlands contaminated by migrants from Asia. However it gets to this continent, federal biologists say they can find it.
Deborah Rock is the Fish and Wildlife Services avian flu coordinator in anchorage.
Ms. DEBORAH ROCK (Avian Flu Coordinator, Fish and Wildlife Services): We weren't set up to hit or miss. We were set up to hit. We set up our sampling plant so that if it is Alaska, we're pretty confident that we'll have detected it.
KNOX: But some are skeptical.
Pete Marra works at the Smithsonian Institution's Migratory Bird Center in Washington. From tracking West Nile Virus across the country, he knows how frustrating it can be to look for a virus in living birds.
Dr. PETE MARRA (Smithsonian Institution Migratory Bird Center): I'd rather see a more systematic survey, maybe not of live birds, but perhaps of dead birds around North America, to make sure that we actually detect the first occurrence of H5N1.
KNOX: And Marra doesn't think that all the attention should go to Migratory Bird Surveillance in Alaska.
Mr. MIRA: There's no question that migratory birds are playing a role, but we also really need to think carefully about the role of the movement of poultry and the movement of pets.
KNOX: The U.S. doesn't import poultry and it tries to screen out sick animals in the pet trade. But the virus could come in illegally, perhaps through other Western Hemisphere countries with less stringent safeguards.
Richard Knox, NPR News.