Health & Science

Route of the flu

The first signs of avian influenza in Washington likely will surface as migratory birds return to the state this fall from Alaska, and biologists intend to be ready.

State officials plan aggressive testing of migratory birds, particularly waterfowl, and will inspect dead birds at hunter checkpoints. The state also wants to open a hotline for people to call when they find dead birds and is trying to educate the public about the flu.

Similarly, federal wildlife officials are planning testing and monitoring programs.

"If the virus comes to North America, it will come to Alaska first," said Kristin Mansfield, Spokane-based veterinarian for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. "They go up to Alaska to breed, lay their eggs and have their young."

Birds from Asia, where the virus is most prevalent, also summer in Alaska and intermingle with North American birds.

Mansfield and other wildlife officials have until May to develop a plan. They want to teach the public about avian flu, collect dead bird reports and train biologists on how to test everything from a duckling to an adult swan.

They are racing against time. Migratory birds will start arriving in the Mid-Columbia by late August, and biologists and hunters likely will be the first to notice changes in bird populations.

The Mid-Columbia is along the Pacific Flyway, one of the major paths for migratory ducks, a principal carrier of bird flu.

Mallards and other ducks will be tested at hunter checkpoints in Eastern Washington, though it's still unclear where the checkpoints will be, Mansfield said.

"We haven't decided whether we will have our own biologists do this, or if we are going to hire special biologists to do this work," she said.

Biologists will swab the throats and anal areas of young ducks too. Mansfield said younger ducks are better to test because they are easier to catch and scientists can quickly tell if the birds have been exposed to the disease.

The swabbing won't hurt the birds, and they will be released after the test, she added.

Scientists also plan to test snow geese in the Skagit River Valley, cackling geese in Vancouver near the Columbia River and swans near the Canadian border.

Mansfield said avian flu planning and responding to public concerns are taking up much of her time.

"(It's) mostly citizens calling concerned about single dead birds on their deck or by their bird feeder," she said.

The veterinarian said for now she wants the public to report groups of dead birds but not single birds. But this fall, when testing and surveillance are increased, single deaths also may be investigated.

Mansfield said residents with small flocks of chickens or ducks shouldn't allow their birds to interact with wild birds.

"Any bird that is kept in the back yard would be at risk," she said.

But it's important that people don't become overly frightened, and there is no reason to stop eating chicken, she said.

Don Kraege, Olympia-based waterfowl section manager for state Fish and Wildlife, said hunters will need to take some precautions this fall. But the risk of contracting bird flu from an infected duck or goose is relatively remote.

"Any birds that come in contact (with the virus) are most likely going to die," Kraege said. "Most birds that hunters come across are healthy."

But there could be a threat to hunters from a duck or goose that is carrying the virus or has built up a resistance to the disease and still can fly, he said.

Swabs and blood samples taken from bagged birds will be sent to Washington State University labs in Pullman and Puyallup for testing. The labs also test for the virus by analyzing swabs taken from live birds, eggs and dead birds.

"We stand ready to assist whatever agency needs it," said Tim Baszler, director of laboratory operations for WSU's College of Veterinary Medicine.

WSU has been testing for avian flu for a few years. Those samples are sent on for more advanced testing at a Department of Agriculture lab in Ames, Iowa.

Baszler, an expert on diseases, said the virus is sometimes hard to analyze because it mutates rapidly.

Meanwhile, federal wildlife officials have developed a national plan and are working with the states.

"What they've learned in Asia is helping us figure out what to do," said Mike Ritter, deputy project manager for the Hanford Reach National Monument.

Greg Hughes, project leader for the Reach, said his employees are busy reading volumes of material, and teams of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials are being formed across the country to work on the problem.

No birds have been tested on the Reach for avian flu yet, he said.

But in two weeks, a vast testing effort will begin in Alaska when birds start arriving from Asia and the lower 48 states.

Tom Rothe, waterfowl coordinator with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said a half-dozen state and federal agencies will collect as many as 15,000 bird samples.

"This is going to be one of the most challenging exercises anyone has ever taken on," he said. "The odds of detecting it are going to be very difficult."

Last year, officials collected about 2,000 samples, but none turned up positive for the type of virus that can infect humans.

The federal government approved an additional $5.5 million for this year's testing.

Rothe is one of the key leaders organizing the mission, in which several hundred state and federal workers will trap and test about 30 species of birds including shore birds, ducks, geese, swans, sandhill cranes and song birds. Those are the birds that are most likely to fly over from Asia or have contact with Asian birds, he said.

About 50 remote camps will be set up in the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta, one of the richest waterfowl nesting areas in the world. Samples will be kept cold in nitrogen coolers and flown out to labs for testing.

Rothe said the birds will be trapped in nets along the coast, as they are sitting on nests and in live traps baited with corn.

"We have experts that know how to catch these birds, but it's still going to be difficult," he said.

Preparations are rapidly being made because the birds are on their way.

"We just saw our first geese from your area last week," Rothe said.