Vet's Work in Cambodia May Hold Clues to Spread of Avian Flu

Veterinarian Martin Gilbert, right, takes a fecal swab from a small bird caught on the flood plain of Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake. The sample would be tested for bird flu.
Veterinarian Martin Gilbert, right, takes a fecal swab from a small bird caught on the flood plain of Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake. The sample would be tested for bird flu. (By Alan Sipress -- The Washington Post)

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By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 9, 2006

STOENG, Cambodia -- From the front seat of a Land Cruiser, Martin Gilbert peered through his telescope at the rare, black-headed bustard mostly obscured by a tussock of grass. He watched as his colleagues in a white pickup truck inched toward the bird, trying to gingerly direct it toward a net stretched about 75 yards across the dusty flood plain.

The stakeout had lasted more than half an hour, and Gilbert's closely cropped red hair was growing moist in the late afternoon heat, sweat beading on his brow.

"C'mon, mate," he urged the bird in hushed tones. "You're almost there."

Suddenly, it scampered into the open.

"Oooh! Oooh!" Gilbert exclaimed. "He's in the net! He's in!"

A globetrotting veterinarian now stalking bird flu across East Asia, Gilbert was eager to get hold of the bustard, called a Bengal Florican, so he could strap on a satellite transmitter to track its migration and take a fecal swab to test for the virus.

Although avian flu has been prevalent in Asia for at least three years and hopscotched to Europe and Africa, there is no consensus among health experts about the role migratory fowl play in spreading the disease and remarkably little knowledge about which species could do so.

These questions have acquired new urgency in recent weeks after wild birds introduced the virulent H5N1 strain into Western Europe. Gilbert's hunt in the wilderness of northwestern Cambodia could provide crucial clues about the role wild birds play in spreading the disease, even helping answer whether bird flu will ultimately arrive on American shores and how it might get there.

It has already struck birds in as many as 40 countries and infected at least 175 people, killing slightly more than half, according to the World Health Organization and other U.N. agencies.

Influenza specialists blamed the initial outbreaks in East Asia on the movement of infected poultry, saying farming and marketing practices have kept the virus circulating once it has been introduced into new countries in Asia and elsewhere.

Then, last year, an outbreak was reported for the first time among wild birds in Mongolia. Gilbert, the son of two Scottish country veterinarians, drove more than two days over a barren landscape to reach the remote site so he could catalogue the birds and take samples. It was one of the earliest indications that migratory fowl were carrying bird flu.

The World Health Organization reported late last month that mutations in the virus now allow it to infect some wild birds without killing them, potentially accelerating the spread of the disease over long distances. The genetic change had been noted after bird flu started racing westward last year from China across Central Asia to Turkey, a swath of the Earth little studied by ornithologists.

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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