Alaska pathway seems free
of deadly bird flu
By Ned Rozell
June 20, 2008
Asian bird flu and its connection to Alaska was big news a few
years ago, when dozens of Alaska scientists started checking
birds migrating from Asia. So far, the news from the field is
"There are strains of
avian flu here, but not of the deadly stuff-thank goodness,"
said Greg Wilkinson of the Alaska Department of Health and Social
U.S. Geological Survey
biologist Dan Rizzolo swabs an emperor goose to test for avian
influenza on the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in 2006.
Alaska scientists have performed this action on multiple thousands
of birds migrating through Alaska.
Photo by Donna Dewhurst
The U.S. government spent millions
in the last few years to enable biologists to capture migratory
birds and swab their rear ends to search for signs of a deadly
virus first found in Hong Kong in 1997. Since 2003, the Asian
H5N1 virus has spread west across Asia to Europe and Africa,
and has killed more than 240 people.
Alaska, so far, is clean.
"All agencies collectively sampled over 20,000 wild birds
in Alaska, and the bottom line is that in 2006, we found garden-variety
avian flu in 1.7 percent of those birds, and we didn't find any
of the Asian H5N1," said Tom Rothe, the statewide waterfowl
coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "In
2007, we sampled over 12,000 birds and 0.7 percent had common,
low-pathogen influenza. Nationwide, over 100,000 birds were sampled
(in 2006 and 2007) and nobody found any Asian H5N1."
In 2008, Alaska researchers will again test about 12,000 birds,
most of them waterfowl that can pick up flu viruses by ingesting
water fouled with the feces or other bodily fluids of birds.
Jon Runstadler, a veterinarian and an assistant professor at
UAF, is part of a team that has sampled 4,000 birds in Alaska
since 2005 and 4,000 in the Russian Far East, Japan, and Mongolia
"We found a lot of viruses, mostly in waterfowl, and most
of those have come out of ducks in Minto Flats, which seems to
be a relative hotspot for influenza," he said. "But
we've not found any viruses that are highly pathogenic, and no
This year, Runstadler and his colleagues are sampling birds at
Minto Flats all summer, rather than just convenient periods to
catch birds, such as when they are molting and lose their flight
"It's fading away in the media," Runstadler said of
the hubbub over the H5N1 virus, but "most people studying
influenza feel like there will be a pandemic, or a pandemic-like
situation, at some point due to the fact that it's a virus that
does unique things in the way it evolves and exists in the natural
The 1918 influenza virus that killed 50 million people-and wiped
out entire villages in Alaska-was a bird flu that jumped to humans,
which is why those in the know have paid attention to H5N1. Flu
viruses are so mysterious that researchers think it's worthwhile
to keep tabs on them, no matter that the present danger seems
"While H5N1 is currently
the most likely candidate because it's out there causing problems
and moving around, we don't really know whether H5N1 is going
to cause a problem, or whether (a similar type of virus will
cause a problem)," Runstadler said.
Why haven't Alaska scientists been finding infected birds here?
The Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea might be acting as barriers
to the deadly strain of flu that might be present in birds while
they winter in Vietnam, Thailand, or Indonesia.
"Maybe they can't carry (the virus) that long," Rothe
said. "Maybe they die before they get here, or the virus
runs its course."
Whatever the reason the deadly virus isn't showing up here, scientists
will keep checking birds as long as the funding arrives to do
"If Congress thinks it's still an important enough project,
we'll keep testing birds," Rothe said.
This column is provided
as a public service by the Geophysical
Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation
with the UAF research community.
Ned Rozell [firstname.lastname@example.org]
is a science writer at the institute.
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