By DOUG O'HARRA
Anchorage Daily News
May 19, 2006
It was a female pectoral sandpiper and, Wednesday morning, the little pond-wader became the unwitting volunteer in an extraordinary quest:
Find the first carrier of deadly avian flu in North America.
One of the world's impressive long-distance migrants, most pectoral sandpipers range from Argentina through Alaska to Siberia. The fear is that some wild birds will catch the flu in Asian breeding grounds and bring it here.
This particular bird, the first captured for testing here at the edge of the continent, had probably arrived in Anchorage only days ago to forage for bugs and worms in marshes below the Coastal Trail. It's likely bound for Russia or Arctic Alaska. Just passing through.
But was it infected?
While Gill held the bird's head and sharp beak firmly between fingers protected by gloves, biologist Lee Tibbitts inserted a sterile swab in the bird's anal cavity.
"You've got to twist around," Gill said. "There you go."
The bird's beady little eyes blinked, but it gave no other sign of distress at the maneuver. Then Tibbitts eased the swab free and stowed it in a vial of pink fluid. It would soon be tested at a national lab.
This local effort launched an unprecedented government project to intercept the H5N1 strain, a virulent killer of poultry that has sparked fears of a new human pandemic.
During the next five months, bird biologists will swab, poke, measure and tweak as many as 12,000 birds in Alaska _ some 28 different high-priority species caught or killed from the brown tundra of the Yukon Delta to the silty flats near Alaska's largest city.
Alaska leads the way in the national bird flu surveillance because it's the migratory hub for dozens of Asian and North American species. But by the end of summer, biologists with three federal departments hope to sample 75,000 to 100,000 live and dead birds from the Pacific Islands to the Atlantic flyway. Another 50,000 samples will be taken of water or feces.
"It's pretty unique," said Paul Slota, a spokesman from the National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin, where samples will undergo initial screening. "I've been (a federal biologist) for 30 years, and I've never seen this much cooperation by the departments of Agriculture, Interior and Health and Human Services, all working for the same goal."
The scientists will probe genetics and diet, plus band captured birds to find out where they go. But the major focus will be the detection of the deadly H5N1, a virus that has killed millions of domestic and wild birds across Asia, Europe and Africa since it first appeared in 1997.
This nightmare strain does not easily spread to humans. But 115 of the 208 people confirmed with the disease since 2003 have died, according to statistics posted Monday by the World Health Organization.
Almost every known victim caught the H5N1 flu directly from poultry, usually after constant daily exposure to chickens and geese raised in family flocks. Only one report has blamed exposure to infected wild birds, when several women died in Azerbaijan this winter after plucking dead swans, according to the World Health Organization.
If the H5N1 flu were to evolve
into a form that could move quickly from person to person, health
officials say, it has the potential to trigger a global outbreak
with deaths in the tens of millions.
Scripps-McClatchy Western Service, http://www.shns.com
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