Wildlife Officials to Monitor for Avian Flu

Thursday, July 27, 2006

As birds from Alaska and Canada begin their migration south through the continental United States, federal and state biologists will be capturing and sampling birds in every state as part of the interagency strategic plan between the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of the Interior for the early detection of highly pathogenic H5N1 in wild birds.

Disease biologists and field specialists with USDA’s wildlife services program are teaming up with state biologists to collect approximately 50,000 to 75,000 bird samples along with 50,000 environmental samples throughout the lower 48 states and Hawaii. This effort is in addition to the sampling currently taking place in Alaska.

Since Alaska is at the crossroads of bird migration flyways, scientists believe the highly pathogenic H5N1 subtype (HPAI) would most likely arrive there if it spreads to North America via migratory birds. Thus, the interagency strategic plan recommends a prioritized sampling system with emphasis in Alaska, elsewhere in the Pacific flyway and the Pacific islands, followed by the Central, Mississippi and Atlantic flyways.

The plan is part of the President's National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Preparedness. President Bush allocated $29 million in his avian influenza supplemental funding package for implementation of the wild bird monitoring plan. Seventeen million dollars of that was allocated to USDA and $12 million to the U.S. Department of the Interior. USDA is working closely with the states to implement the surveillance program. USDA formed collaborative agreements with state fish and game agencies to assist with the wild bird sampling in every state and approximately $3.8 million was given to the states in the form of cooperative agreements for wild bird surveillance. Thus far, USDA has completed cooperative agreements in nine states and is finalizing cooperative agreements in 41 states. The remainder of the funding supports USDA sampling efforts, the purchase of sampling kits and the diagnostic costs for analyzing both bird and environmental samples.

Historically, wild birds have been natural reservoirs for low pathogenic avian influenza viruses and often show little or no signs of disease. Various forms of low pathogenicity avian influenza have existed in the United States since the early 1900s. They can cause varying degrees of illness in birds and have not posed a public health threat. If a virus mutates or mixes with another avian influenza virus it can become highly pathogenic, causing higher fatality rates in birds. The HPAI strain of H5N1 currently affecting countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and other geographic areas is highly infectious between birds, but has never been found in the United States. Other forms of HPAI have been detected in domestic poultry three times in this country: in 1924, 1983 and 2004. The 2004 outbreak was confined to one flock and eradicated. There were no human illnesses reported in connection with these outbreaks, however the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus has caused human illness and death in other countries where people have handled or been in close contact with infected birds.

Additional information about avian flu and security relating to domestic poultry, wild bird monitoring and research, as well as pandemic planning nationwide is available at the U.S. government’s comprehensive Web site for pandemic preparedness at or .

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