January 19, 2006

US government expands bird flu tests in Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Alaska, the resting spot for
many migratory birds from Asia, will be the target of expanded
tests to detect whether bird flu has reached North America, a
government official said on Thursday.

Alaska is considered North America's most likely point of
entry for the deadly H5N1 avian influenza, because it stands at
a crossroads of wild waterfowl and shorebird migration to and
from Asia.

At least 6,000 wild migrating birds will be tested from
across Alaska in the spring and the fall, said Rick Kearney,
who is helping run the Department of Interior's flu-testing

"Alaska would be that place where the virus arrives in
North America and is transferred from one type of waterfowl to
another and migrates to the lower 48 (states)," said Kearney,
wildlife program coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey.

"Until it shows up someplace else, this is the point, the
place where the most intensive effort is going to be."

In 2005, government agencies tested more than 1,000 live
wild birds to see whether the H5N1 virus strain was present and
the University of Alaska Fairbanks tested an additional 3,000
live birds over the past few years, Kearney said.

The tests did not uncover any cases of the H5N1 strain of
bird flu, which has killed 80 people in Asia since late 2003.

Government officials expressed concern that birds migrating
from Asia to Alaska this spring would bring the virus with them
and eventually spread the virus to domestic poultry or some
other receptor.

The Department of Interior, Agriculture Department and
local organizations also plan to test an additional 7,000 birds
harvested by hunters in the spring and fall, Kearney said.

The H5N1 virus remains primarily a virus of birds, but
experts fear it could change into a form easily transmitted
from person to person and sweep the world, killing millions
within weeks or months.

So far, most human cases can be traced to direct or
indirect contact with infected birds.