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30 Jan 06
US Watching Wild Birds for Spread of Bird Flu
Story by Christopher Doering
-WASHINGTON - The United States will boost domestic surveillance of wild birds in 2006 with several thousand expected to be tested in an effort to determine whether the deadly avian influenza virus has spread from Asia, government officials said on Friday.
There is some evidence that migratory birds are involved in spreading the H5N1 strain of avian influenza in Asia and Europe, but to what degree is uncertain, experts say.
Still, state agencies and the US Interior and Agriculture departments will target wild birds they believe offer the highest and earliest chance of detecting H5N1. "We're going to increase surveillance of migratory birds because we know that is a potential pathway," said Ron DeHaven, head of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, during a congressional briefing on the disease.
"Should the virus become established in wild birds here in the United States it would not only pose a risk to wildlife ... but to poultry," he added.
The H5N1 virus has killed 83 people and forced more than 150 million birds worldwide to be destroyed. The latest bird flu strain emerged in Asia in 2003 and has spread to Europe, primarily infecting people who have come in close contact with sick birds.
While researchers and some government officials have downplayed the risk of the disease ever reaching the United States, there is a chance it could enter through migratory birds or birds smuggled into the country.
People, equipment, poultry and wild birds are ways it could spread once it's here.
US testing of wild birds will be concentrated in Alaska -- with at least 46 sites testing as many as 200 birds each -- because of its close proximity with the Pacific Flyway to Asia. Additional tests, including on birds captured by hunters, will be conducted, officials said.
Dale Hall, director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said "the sample number will be in the thousands," but he did not specify. Each wild bird test costs between $35 and $80 with results taking a few days, according to the government. Commercial poultry is about $30-$35 because it is easier to get samples.
An estimated 1.5 million commercial birds are tested for avian influenza in the United States each year, many before they are exported, said DeHaven. He estimated the total could double or triple due to a voluntary program announced earlier this month by poultry producers to test most US chickens and chicken products for bird flu.
The enhanced testing program for wild birds would begin this spring. By then, bird flu experts say they could know if the disease has spread along traditional migratory pathways.
"One of the concerns I think is that we don't know very much, really, about how this particular strain is interacting in migratory birds," said Susan Haseltine, associate director with the Interior's US Geological Survey.
The Bush administration asked Congress last November for $91 million so the US Agriculture Department could step up its monitoring of wild birds, to buy more vaccine doses for poultry, and to coordinate bird flu efforts with other countries.
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