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Homeland Security

27 January 2006

U.S. Finalizing Wild Bird Surveillance Program, Officials Say

Will also increase testing of commercial poultry for viruses

By Kathryn McConnell
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The United States is making final details of a national bird surveillance and testing program that the administration hopes will help guard the country from the spread of a potential outbreak of highly-pathogenic -- or lethal -- bird flu, officials say.

The U.S. federal government is coordinating its efforts with Alaska, other states and Canada, over which wild -- or migratory birds -- from Asia and Russia fly during spring season to their final destinations in Central and South America, said Ron DeHaven, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The program is a follow-up to the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, announced in November 2005 by President Bush.  (See related article.)

DeHaven, together with Dale Hall and Susan Haseltine of the Department of Interior's U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), on January 27 briefed congressional staff and the media in Washington.

As part of the program, the United States will increase the number of bird surveillance stations along the Alaska and Pacific "flyways," coordinating with local "flyway councils," to determine if any birds exhibit symptoms of bird flu, also known as avian influenza, Hall said.

Flyway councils help local and state wildlife agencies coordinate efforts to protect and conserve migratory birds.

The Alaska flyway connects North America with Russia via airspace over the Bering Strait. The Pacific flyway runs along the west coast of the United States.

Wild migratory birds are suspect of being one way that the highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu strain is transmitted. There is some evidence that such birds helped transmit the disease from East and Central Asia to Turkey, where it has spread from birds to humans, DeHaven said.

Turkish health officials so far positively have identified 21 human cases of infection from the H5N1 strain, with four fatalities. Tests have not been reaffirmed officially by an outside laboratory. But international health officials have expressed confidence in results previously presented by Turkish labs.

Worldwide, more than 150 human cases have occurred with 83 deaths. More than 150 million birds have died from the disease or in culling operations.

The United States also is stepping up its testing of commercial poultry for avian influenza before or at slaughter. Samples, which will total hundreds of thousand a year, according to DeHaven, will be sent to Interior's National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin. From there suspect samples will be sent for further testing to USDA's National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Iowa, Heseltine said.

Commercial poultry producers already are involved in testing, DeHaven said, citing a "tremendous surveillance program" established by the National Chicken Council, a poultry producer group.

Under the coordinated plan, hunters also voluntarily will submit to field surveillance stations samples of wild birds they kill, DeHaven said.

The key will be the quick submission of samples to the testing laboratory and "immediate assessment" of samples, Hill said.

When made final -- expected to be some time in late February -- details of the surveillance and testing program will be posted on USDA, USGS and Department of Health and Human Services Web sites, Haseltine said.

Additionally, the United States will increase its efforts to intercept potentially infected wild or domesticated birds being smuggled into the country, he said.

For more information, see Bird Flu (Avian Influenza).

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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