U.S. to Increase Testing Of Wild Birds for Avian Flu

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By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Federal officials announced plans yesterday to sharply increase testing of wild birds to try to detect the arrival of the deadly avian flu in the United States as early as possible and stanch any outbreaks of disease.

With the virus spreading worldwide, officials predicted it could show up in this country as early as later this year, most likely in wild birds during their annual migration from Asia through Alaska.

"It is increasingly likely that we will detect a highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian flu in birds within U.S. borders, possibly as early as this year," Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said in announcing the plan with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt. "We are working together to expand our early-warning system."

The dangerous bird flu virus, known as H5N1, has spread from Asia into parts of Europe and Africa, killing or forcing the destruction of millions of chickens and other birds. So far the virus has mainly affected birds, but it has killed 98 people -- about half of those who have been infected. All the victims had close contact with poultry. Officials fear the virus could mutate in a way that makes it spread easily from person to person, sparking a devastating worldwide pandemic.

U.S. wildlife experts have been monitoring wild migratory birds since the virus emerged in Asia in 1997. They have tested 12,000 in Alaska since 1998 and 4,000 traveling across the Atlantic since 2000. Officials have been focusing on Alaska because it is a crossroad for bird migration. No birds have tested positive.

Under the new plan, officials expect to collect 75,000 to 100,000 samples from live and dead wild birds this year, along with 50,000 samples of water or feces from waterfowl habitats across the United States. Officials also plan to investigate any disease outbreaks in wild birds and do spot checks of birds killed by hunters, as well as those being sold in live bird markets and being raised by farmers. The effort is part of the Bush administration's $29 million plan to protect the country against the virus.

"None of us can build a cage around the United States. We have to be prepared to deal with the virus here," Johanns said.

If an infected bird is detected, officials plan to immediately quarantine the area and kill any infected birds to stem the spread of the virus. In addition to human health concerns, officials worry that the virus could devastate the $29 billion poultry industry.

Officials stressed that they expect perhaps dozens of false alarms because of increased testing, and that even if a genuine case is found it does not necessarily mean an outbreak will occur.

"The detection of highly pathogenic H5N1 virus in the United States would not constitute a reason for panic," the agriculture secretary said.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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