Alaskan Town Fears Second Deadly Bird Flu Visit It's only a matter of time before the H5N1 bird flu virus reaches the United States, say health officials. Alaska's northwest coast is considered a primary point of entry, and the town of Brevig Mission, which relies on wild birds for subsistence, is worried.

Alaskan Town Fears Second Deadly Bird Flu Visit

Alaskan Town Fears Second Deadly Bird Flu Visit

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The villagers of Brevig Mission worry their reliance on wild birds for subsistence may put them at risk for bird flu. Kennan Ward/Corbis hide caption

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Kennan Ward/Corbis

It's only a matter of time before the H5N1 bird flu virus reaches the United States, say health officials. In just one winter, the H5N1 bird flu virus has migrated from Asia to Europe and Africa.

Alaska's northwest coast, a major flyway for migrating birds, is considered a primary point of entry. The region has already played a major role in the effort to halt the disease.

1918 Flu Virus Reconstructed

The flu virus that killed tens of millions worldwide after it appeared in 1918 has been recreated in the virological equivalent of the Jurassic Park story.

  

Scientists rebuilt it from pieces of genetic material retrieved from the lungs of people who died 87 years ago, including an Inuit woman. Researchers say the tightly guarded replica is even more virulent than they expected.

In 1918, a pandemic, sparked by bird flu virus, swept through the tiny Alaskan coastal community of Brevig Mission. Tissue samples taken more than half a century ago from a mass grave there provided a map of that virus, which is helping researchers figure out how the current H5N1 virus works.

Brevig Mission's mass grave holds the remains of the 72 victims, and has been opened twice. In 1951, pathologist Johann Hultin convinced village elders to allow him to take tissue samples from bodies buried in permafrost. His lab attempts to map the virus were unsuccessful, but he returned in 1997 and was once again given permission to re-open the grave.

While other Arctic communities turned people away with armed guards, Brevig Mission took in the sick and orphaned during the pandemic. So many people died so quickly, village council member Rita Olanna says her grandfather told her even the sky seemed sad.

Today a real fear for this coastal community is the knowledge that wild birds can carry the H5N1 virus and that people can catch it just by handling the infected birds.

As winter moves on and the start of spring duck hunting gets closer, villagers are worried. Wild birds have been harvested for generations as a staple subsistence food. For remote communities like Brevig Mission, there is little choice.