STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The first migratory birds from Asia are showing up in Alaska. That's an annual event, but this time the stakes are higher for human beings. The federal government is spending millions of dollars to see if those birds are carrying H5N1, the deadly strain of avian influenza.
In Alaska alone, the goal is to test and screen more than 15,000 birds this summer and fall. The surveillance effort is still somewhat of a work in progress, and Elizabeth Arnold describes it in this National Geographic Radio Expedition.
(Soundbite of birds)
ELIZABETH ARNOLD reporting:
The first shore birds, ducks and geese, are arriving here in Alaska, but some of the biologists who are supposed to capturing and sampling them are still in training.
Mr. REX SOHN (U.S. Geological Survey): Ideally, if you're working with live birds, you've got at last two people.
ARNOLD: In goggles and layers of protective clothing, Rex Sohn, a wildlife disease specialist from the U.S. Geological Survey, bends over a dead goshawk. As a half dozen field assistants look on, he demonstrates with a Q-Tip how to get a fecal sample.
The fact that people are still being trained isn't due to a failure of planning or a lack of funding. It's simply that the task of intercepting the strain of virus is daunting, as neither birds nor influenza are predictable.
The birds are late to arrive this spring due to cold weather. And state and federal agencies are still working on just how samples will be taken, stored, and shipped from 47 remote camps, some with no electricity, running water, or road access.
Deb Rocque is U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Avian Flu Coordinator in Alaska. She sat through countless planning meeting for months, and says even sampling 15,000 of the millions of birds migrating here may not be enough.
Ms. DEB ROCQUE (U.S. Fish and Wildlife): We're estimating. We're taking a very scientific best guess of what's the minimum number of birds we need to sample to detect this at a very low incident. Are we going to swab ever bird, or close to every bird? Not even close. Whether we find it or not, you know, I don't know.
ARNOLD: Alaska is key to the surveillance effort because it's the migratory hub for dozens of Asian and North American species.
Nationwide, three federal agencies aim to sample 100,000 live and dead birds from the Pacific Islands to the Atlantic flyway. They've sought help from independent researchers and the birding community, people who normally spend their summers capturing and banding wild birds.
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ARNOLD: The sun is just coming up at five in the morning at a long-term migration station in interior Alaska. A half-dozen giant sandhill cranes fly overhead. The Alaska Bird Observatory has banded more than 55,000 birds here. This summer they'll be taking fecal samples from every bird as well.
In a thick birch forest, dotted with mosquito-infested ponds, birds are captured in 30 mist nets that are unrolled every morning for six hours. Andrew Lange is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Alaska who's been studying avian flu viruses. He patiently untangles a tiny bird from the first net we checked.
Mr. ANDREW LANG (School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, University of Alaska): Those are yellow-rumpled warblers. Some people would call them myrtle warbler. Some species are, seem to be calmer than others and get less tangled. These guys are usually not too bad, but...
ARNOLD: And that's a...
Mr. LANG: This is another yellow-rumpled warbler.
ARNOLD: These birds and others are brought back to the banding station, weighed, measured, banded and sampled. While this bird is not a likely carrier, it's still checked. There are 28 target species, birds ranging from the tiny gray-cheeked warbler to the sandhill cranes we saw earlier overhead, birds that have spent time in Asia.
Mr. LANG: So I'm going to get a swab and try and scrape up as much of that as I can. Okay. Then it goes into this little vial that contains this red liquid called Viral Transport Media, which theoretically keeps the viruses alive, and you know, viable.
Ms. APRIL HARDING (Field Biologist): 2370...
ARNOLD: Then, April Harding, a field biologist, fits a tiny metal band with a number on it around the bird's twitching leg.
Ms. HARDING: And so the cool thing with having a unique number is that if our bird, say, flies to Texas and someone picks it up there, they'll know where it came from. Because the point of the banding station is to figure out migration paths, timing and also population trends.
ARNOLD: While it may seem arcane, this kind of information could prove critical if H5N1 is detected in a wild bird.
Townsend Peterson, an ecology professor at the University of Kansas, has been pressing this point, the importance of knowing how and where birds migrate, which is pivotal to predicting where the virus will jump next.
Professor TOWNSEND PETERSON (Ecology, University of Kansas): What we should be doing is this sort of monitoring and this sort of study all the time. Not just when, you know, the train's barreling down the tracks towards us.
ARNOLD: This brand new lab in Anchorage is a step towards just that.
Dr. LANG: This is the molecular biology wing. It's where the avian influenza testing will be taking place.
ARNOLD: If H5N1 is detected in a bird, if a preliminary sample is positive, what happens next is still largely unknown. The sample will be sent to a federal lab for confirmation, but all that could take weeks, and the bird from which the sample came will be long gone.
Researchers will make a best guess as to where it's headed next. Sampling will intensify where the contaminated bird was discovered, and domestic bird owners in the area and poultry farms along the migration route will be told to take precautions, such as covering cages or moving birds inside.
But avian coordinator Deb Rocque says the question of when everyone will be told hasn't been sorted out yet.
Ms. ROCQUE: They haven't quite figured out in Washington at what level we're going to alert the public. People are freaking out without any positive test, without any samples actually having been run yet from this field season.
ARNOLD: Rocque says the made-for-TV movie dramatizing a bird flu pandemic hasn't helped.
But even if H5N1 is never detected here, Rocque and officials in every capacity, from public health to wildlife biology, say the surveillance effort is worthwhile. The data collected from thousands of samples is invaluable to future research, as is the heightened awareness with regard to disease borne by wildlife.
State epidemiologist Jay Butler says his greatest fear is that the whole episode fades from memory.
Mr. JAY BUTLER (Epidemiologist): After everyone is tired of hearing about influenza and thinks, well, we didn't have a pandemic, see, there's no risk, we'd be naïve to think we wouldn't have influenza pandemics again in the future.
(Soundbite of birds)
ARNOLD: This summer and fall, however, the federal government will literally cast a wide net, thousands of them, in fact, to detect the deadly strain of avian flu if it appears in North America. Testing of the first samples from live birds arriving in Alaska will begin next week.
For Radio Expeditions, I'm Elizabeth Arnold.
INSKEEP: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society.
You can see photos of the testing at npr.org.