FAIRBANKS, Alaska--While Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" made many of usuneasy at the sight of amassing gulls years ago, today public healthofficials around the world are beginning to cast an equally uneasy eyetoward migratory birds, especially in Alaska, following recentoutbreaks of avian influenza in Southeast Asia and, last week, inSiberia.
Alaska is at the intersection of the Asian and North Americanflyways for migratory birds and scientists say that could provide anunusual mixing ground for the evolution of new strains of bird flu -strains that could spread to lower latitudes and possibly jump to otherspecies, including humans.
University of Alaska (UAF) scientists and state and federalbiologists from across Alaska have joined forces and formed theUniversity of Alaska Program on the Biology and Epidemiology of AvianInfluenza in Alaska to study migratory birds in Alaska and determinehow many are infected and how strains of influenza virus jump from onespecies to another.
Wild birds are the natural hosts of many influenza viralstrains that normally do not infect humans. However, recent outbreaksof bird flu in Southeast Asia were caused by a highly pathogenic H5N1strain and there is increasing evidence that this strain can jump thespecies barrier and cause severe disease and mortality in humans. Asecond and even greater concern, according to the World HealthOrganization, is the possibility that the present situation could giverise to an influenza pandemic in humans akin to the 1918 "Spanish Flu."On Friday, WHO warned that China is not rigorously following up on arecent deadly H5N1 outbreak among wild birds.
The 1918 influenza pandemic killed more than 500,000 people inthe United States and as many as 50 million people worldwide, accordingto the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Many died within the first fewdays after infection; almost half of those who died were healthy, youngadults.
"The initial goal of the (UA) program is to assess thediversity and prevalence of avian influenza in Alaska's birdpopulations," said Jonathan Runstadler, veterinarian, assistantprofessor of molecular biology at UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology,and a lead scientist on the Avian Influenza Program.
Runstadler along with biologists and technicians from UAF andstate, federal and private wildlife agencies are spending part of thissummer's bird-banding season collecting cloacal swabs of birdstemporarily captured as part of other studies.
"One of the reasons we don't understand the ecology of thevirus is that we don't know what happens to the virus in its naturalecosystem," Runstadler said. "We need to understand how the biology ofbirds impacts disease transmission. For instance, does the time of yearwhen birds nest, fledge, stage, migrate, or interact with young birdsaffect transmission?"
The cloacal samples will be screened for the avian influenzavirus, positive samples will be identified and sent to The Institute ofGenomic Research (TIGR) for sequencing of the entire viral RNA genomewhich will then be published in GenBank, the National Institutes ofHealth collection of all publicly available RNA and DNA sequences.
With gene sequences, bird species, geographic location andcapture information in hand, Tom Marr, UA president's professor ofbioinformatics, Jim Long, biotechnology computing technical leader, andBuck Sharpton, UA president's professor of remote sensing plan tocreate the first Web site of georeferenced avian influenza data.
"We knew about (bird) flu because Kevin Winker has been talkingabout flu for years," said George Happ, Director of the IDeA Networksfor Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) at UAF, which is funding theUA avian influenza program.
"Before I came nobody was paying attention to the extensiveoverlap between the Old World and New World migration systems as adisease pathway," said Winker, curator of birds at the UA Museum of theNorth and an associate professor of biology at UAF.
"Our ability to combine studies in natural history andbiomedicine is why I came to UAF," Runstadler said. "We are best ableto do this type of research at UAF because we have the expertise inbiological and ecological science, the state resources, and now thebiomedical capabilities."
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