Zoos Part of U.S. Effort to Detect Avian Flu
CHICAGO Breeding grounds in Alaska where migratory birds from Asia and North America mingle are a focus of a broadening U.S. bird flu detection effort that is enlisting American zoos as sentinels, experts said Tuesday.
U.S. government and zoo officials meeting at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo this week to discuss the zoos' participation briefed reporters on the broadening strategy to track the potentially devastating virus.
Some 200 American zoos are expected to participate in the screening effort to keep a lookout for the virus, which will be quickly spotted by keepers and veterinarians while tending the animals. Zoo officials said there is a fair amount of contact between wild birds and zoo birds, especially those kept outside.
No positive samples for the H5N1 strain of avian flu have turned up so far in samples tested over the past few months in Alaskan waterfowl and seabirds, said Joshua Dein, an Interior Department official in charge of detecting disease in wildlife.
Investigators have focused on such species as ducks, sandpipers and eiders, he said.
"We know the disease does exist in Asia, and we know migratory birds are most likely to interact and bring the virus back (to North America)," Dein said. "We're mounting a significant surveillance effort in Alaska for early detection."
A plan completed last month to be presented to the Department of Homeland Security calls for expanding the North American sampling effort to include investigating sick or dead birds, birds killed during hunting season, bird species found around slaughtering facilities, and testing of bird droppings, he said.
Commercial poultry companies have also embarked on a multimillion-dollar testing program for avian flu.
Migratory flocks that travel on flyways along the East Coast of Asia and the West Coast of North America converge and mingle at breeding grounds in northern Alaska, said Tracy DuVernoy, a veterinarian for the Agriculture Department.
A virulent form of avian flu has ravaged poultry flocks in Asia and parts of Europe and killed roughly half of the 156 people that have been infected.
It has yet to mutate into a form that can pass from human to human, which experts fear could cause a global pandemic.
Besides some 150 million birds from infected flocks culled in Asia, there have been deaths in the region among captive tigers, civets, leopards and domestic cats from eating raw infected birds, DuVernoy said. When cooked, the meat from infected birds does not transmit the disease.
In addition, zoo animals including birds have died from the virus in Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand, she said. Some crows in Japan were also found to be infected.