Emphasis now in Alaska
By MARGARET TALEV
March 21, 2006
Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and outgoing Interior Secretary Gale Norton began the week by presenting a joint update on national preparedness, covering bird testing, poultry industry protections, anti-smuggling measures, vaccine development and the status of state and local emergency planning.
Leavitt also is in the midst of a multi-city tour, answering questions about the virus' spread globally and telling Americans how to respond should it reach U.S. shores. He is asking people not to panic - even if it should reach birds here, that doesn't mean people are at risk - but to start stockpiling enough non-perishable food, water, flashlights, batteries and medicine to last a couple of weeks, just in case. In a report issued last week, Leavitt said: "It is only a matter of time before we discover H5N1 birds in America."
A confluence of science and politics are at work:
- The change of seasons each year, from winter to spring, sends wild birds from Asia and the continental United States north to Alaska, where they commingle while they nest and molt.
While U.S. birds, including ducks, geese and swans, follow four major migratory patterns, it is the Pacific Flyway, the route through Alaska and down through the Western states, to Mexico, that scientists predict as the most likely conduit of avian flu should it spread here through wild birds. By summer, scientists could know how great that risk appears.
- The H5N1 avian flu virus has remained resilient as it makes its way around the globe, from Asia into Europe and Africa. It has touched at least 43 countries, scientists say, overwhelmingly affecting birds but also being transmitted across species.
This month brought reports of the deaths of three women in Azerbaijan, of a dog there, and of a cat in Germany, from bird flu. The virus has been mutating. Scientists have identified at least half a dozen sub-lineages of the H5N1 strain, at least two of which can be fatal to people, prompting a call for new vaccine development.
Since 2003, the World Health Organization has confirmed 177 human cases overseas, half of which were fatal.
- The annual appropriations process on Capitol Hill is gearing up. Each spring, federal officials and lobbyists representing various industries begin making their cases to have their priority programs funded by taxpayer dollars. Late last year, President Bush last year sought $7.1 billion for avian flu preparations. Congress at the time gave him about half, or $3.8 billion.
Scientists say April through September of this year may be a crucial time frame in terms of knowing whether the disease will spread to the United States via migratory birds.
If it does, that doesn't necessarily mean humans, the poultry industry, pets, airline travel or the economy overall will be afflicted.
Globally, the disease has not been spread directly from wild birds to humans but from people handling diseased live or uncooked poultry. And disease specialists are hoping bio-security measures insulate poultry farms and processing plants from outside infection - a question being tested in Western Europe, where the virus already has spread.
Still, with the high fatality rate in those unusual cases of human transmission, and with past experience of flu pandemics - the one in 1918 killed at least 40 million people, according to world health statistics - U.S. officials are on guard for any incursion of bird flu into the country.
That has led to a major ramping up in the testing of thousands of live birds and hunted birds this year.
The emphasis now is in Alaska. Each day, biologists are trapping birds and probing them with nylon-tipped swabs for samples of their feces and cells from their digestive tracts before tagging them and setting them free.
FedEx trucks deliver these samples to the Diagnostic Virology Laboratory at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis. There, scientists test the samples for viral influenza, preserve them and inject them into chicken eggs to be replicated for research. No worrisome cases have been identified.
By late summer, that lab alone expects to be processing up to 1,500 samples a day. The Agriculture Department is testing thousands of samples as well.
During the autumn, as birds head south again and hunters take to the woods, much of the focus will shift to the states of Washington, Oregon and California, because of their location in the migration route. Other spots throughout the country also are being monitored.
"We haven't bet the farm on just Alaska," said Hon Ip, director of the virology lab in Wisconsin and one of the nation's leading bird flu experts. "We have people all over the place. We are training wildlife biologists, rangers and, in some places, the public health officers as to what to look for."
Whether the Bush's administration's preparations for a pandemic that may never come amount to prudent planning - or an overcompensation for the lack of readiness with Hurricane Katrina - has been a subject of debate among government spending experts.
But in the scientific community, there is ample concern.
In most of the outbreaks in Southeast Asia in the past couple of years, Ip said, the movement of the virus was associated with the legal and illegal spread of poultry products. But with the recent spread of H5N1 in Europe, the flu tracked with the movement of wild birds, and absent the movement of questionable poultry.
"That highlights the need for a surveillance program such as we're starting in North America," Ip said.
As it now exists, he said, H5N1 has been fairly ineffective as a virus in attacking humans. "The situation in Southeast Asia has been brewing nine years now and a lot of people live in close proximity to a lot of birds. Even with that level of contact, less than 100 people have died."
The concern, he said, is that the virus could mutate and catch everyone off guard.
"People need to stay educated," he said. "What used to be OK a couple months ago may not be anymore, if it comes."
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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