Scientists doubt sick birds can migrate to Alaska

KTUU Channel 2 News
by Sean Doogan

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Scientists say a new report brings good news regarding Alaska's potential avian influenza threat.
Last spring, many were concerned that millions of wild birds migrating from Asia might bring a deadly strain of bird flu, known as H5N1, with them.
A new report says the threat may not be as bad as many people feared.
After taking almost 20,000 samples from wild and domestic birds last year, scientists say they can not find any examples of Asian bird flu making its way to Alaska.
A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture questions whether sick birds could fly thousands of miles in order to make it here. But that doesn't mean biologists are ready to stop their hunt for bird flu in Alaska.
A new report, released by the Agriculture Department, shows bird flu is already in Alaska.
"We found that only 1.6 percent of the samples we submitted to the national laboratory tested positive for avian influenza," said Doug Alcorn, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But of the 17,000 samples taken from wild and domestic birds statewide last year, state officials say none showed signs of being infected with the deadly Asian strain of the disease.
"We found some influenza viruses, what we expect to find in the wild population, but no high-pathogen strains of avian influenza," said Dr. Bob Gerlach, VMD, a veterinarian for the state.
Alaska's location makes it the geographical intersection of major migratory flyways, and scientists thought if Asian bird flu were to be seen in North America, it would be seen here first.
But so far, only native, less virulent strains have been found in the state.
"We wouldn't say we are completely in the clear," Alcorn said. "We are testing this year, too; we are going to repeat the work that we did last year with just some minor modifications to our field work."
Biologists from the state and from the federal Department of Fish and Wildlife will again be checking the swamps and fields for signs of avian influenza.
The real threat of bird flu, they say, isn't from migrating wild birds but traveling domestic poultry and people.
"We see product and people moving from place to place, and that gives you another avenue for diseases to be brought into the United States," said Dr. Gerlach.
But with 60 million wild birds making their way from Asia to Alaska each summer, scientists say they will be monitoring Alaska's flyways and waterways for bird flu for years to come, with the ultimate goal of finding nothing.
Scientists will begin testing wild birds when they return in the spring, while tests on local domestic flocks continue.
The state lab will also test birds on display during the Alaska State Fair in Palmer this fall.