Scientists Look for Signs of Bird Flu in Alaska

Alaska is considered the most likely source of entry for the avian flu into the United States. Elizabeth Arnold reports on how scientists there are working with the federal government to check migratory birds for signs of the avian flu virus.

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In the next few weeks, millions of migratory birds will be arriving in Alaska. Some of these birds have wintered in Southeast Asia. They could bring with them the deadly strain of bird flu known as avian influenza A or H5N1.

Federal scientists hope to test 100,000 of these birds for the virus, but public health officials warn Alaskan communities that they will be on their own if a pandemic should occur.

That's considered unlikely, maybe very, very unlikely. Still, as Elizabeth Arnold reports, people are worried.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD reporting:

Alaska senator Ted Stevens had a brief but sobering message for his constituents this last recess.

Senator TED STEVENS (Republican, Alaska): I don't like to use the word so much, but I think we're ground zero for avian flu. If it comes to this country, it will come through the migratory birds. It will come to Alaska first.

ARNOLD: There's nothing certain about if, when or how avian flu might come to this country, but all eyes are now on Alaska.

The first waves of water fowl, shore birds and song birds will touch down any day along the Alaskan peninsula, the Yukon-Kuskoquim Delta, and the Western most Aleutian Islands. And that's why a pandemic influenza summit was held in Anchorage this past week for several hundred public health officials from around the state.

Alex Azar, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was flanked by a half dozen other agency representatives in blue suits. He didn't mince words. His message was, although it may never happen, get ready.

Mr. ALEX AZAR (Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services): Any community that fails to prepare, with the expectation that the federal government can or will offer a lifeline, will be tragically mistaken.

ARNOLD: His warning was underscored by another emissary from Washington, Jeffrey Runge of the Department of Homeland Security.

Mr. JEFFREY RUNGE (Department of Homeland Security): There will be no mutual aid. There will be no help from the Emergency Management Asset Cooperative. There will be no volunteers to staff the usual volunteer relief organizations. In the words of Secretary Levitt, the federal government will not be there to pluck you off your roof during a pandemic.

ARNOLD: While Hurricane Katrina was never mentioned, the reference was clear. And the audience got the message. This was a reality check. Alaska, just like every other state, will need to have its own plan and make its own preparations.

But the federal government will have a heavy presence in the state through the fall. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service aims to test some 20,000 birds here for H5N1 as part of the nationwide goal of 100,000 birds.

While the birds will likely be long gone if and when the virus is detected, they will have been banded and researchers can predict where they might be headed next. The sampling is to serve as sort of an early warning system for poultry producers and health officials in the lower 48 states.

More than 40 species of birds are considered susceptible to infection by the virus. It's killed more than 100 people, mostly in Asia. But there hasn't been a single case of a wild bird infecting a human with H5N1.

While Azar's goal was to deliver a wake-up call to public officials here who need to be prepared for the worst, at the same time, he tried to reassure Alaskans that though the virus may be detected here, by no means does that portend a pandemic.

Mr. AZAR: Don't be surprised if we find birds that have this. It will not be a cause for panic. It will not be a cause for people to stop hunting. It will not be a cause for people to stop eating poultry. It will require, as anyone should be doing already, good handling techniques.

ARNOLD: Spring hunting season is near and Native leaders in Bush, Alaska, where many people harvest ducks and geese for subsistence are increasingly worried.

Myra Nanning(ph) is from the Yukon-Kuskoquim Delta, a point along the Pacific flyway where many species migrating from Asia across the Bering Strait will congregate.

Mr. MYRA NANNING (Yukon-Kuskoquim Delta Resident): How can we alleviate the fear of the people in the villages? We've told them, Go ahead and go hunting this spring. It's just like taking a risk right now.

ARNOLD: Along with using safe, sanitary practices like wearing rubber gloves and washing with fresh water, rural leaders were told to log onto the federal website for updated information.

This time it was the feds who needed the reality check. That may prove difficult, Azar and others were told. Many villages don't have Internet, let alone running water.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Arnold in Anchorage.

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