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Officials not worried about deadly bird flu strain coming to America yet

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Posted: Monday, October 31, 2005 10:00 pm

Avian influenza has killed more than half of the 121 people infected with the disease since it was first reported in humans eight years ago. Wild and domesticated birds alike usually die hours or days after contracting the disease.

But while there are worries that many more will die in southeastern Asia and beyond, federal and local officials say they are not concerned about a deadly strain of the disease coming to America just yet.

"It's nothing people in the U.S. have to worry about right now," said David Daigle, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "They should be more concerned about the seasonal, regular, flu."

Bird flu is spread continent-to-continent by physical contact between migrating birds. Biologists in Alaska and Canada are keeping an eye out and say it's possible for a deadly strain of the disease - known as H5N1 - to make it to North America next year. So far, bird flu has been detected in both wild and domestic birds as far west as Romania, Turkey and Russia.

There is also a fear that the bird flu will mutate into a flu that can be transmitted between people.

"It's mostly a bird disease right now," Daigle said.

The disease was first discovered in southeast Asia in 1997, Daigle said. Since then there have been 121 human cases and 52 deaths from the bird flu. None of the cases have been in North America. The virus was spread from birds to people by physical contact with the birds or their fecal matter. Daigle said the flu will not be a huge problem for the U.S. until it starts to spread among people.

The CDC is working to create a vaccine and antiviral formulas for the disease. Biologists are also studying where the disease might enter the country, and they all agree that it would probably spread to America through Arctic species such as eiders, ducks, gulls and geese, that sometimes come into contact with birds migrating over the Bering Straight from Asia.

"It's far more likely for birds to come from Siberia, through Alaska and into North America," said Nicholas Throckmorton, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The other, less likely possibility is for birds to fly from Southeast Asia to Greenland and then on to North America.

"There are far more species of birds that travel across the Bering Strait (which separates Siberia from Alaska) than the Atlantic Ocean," he said.

If the avian flu ever made its way to San Joaquin County - and to America in general - it would most likely arrive with water fowl such as ducks or geese, he said.

Throckmorton said that birds that breed in Alaska but travel to south Asia will be at a higher risk next season because there will be a higher chance of coming in contact with infected birds.

When the native Alaskan species returned to breed, they would then pose a danger to the rest of North America, he said.

There is also a third way that the disease can cross oceans to get to America, scientists say, via birds on the Endangered Species List that are smuggled into the country. It is very possible for a smuggled bird to be infected with the virus that causes bird flu, Throckmorton said.

"The illegal wildlife trade is second only to the illegal drug trade," he said.

San Joaquin Health Officer Karen Furst said county officials have let state and federal scientists take the lead in assessing the dangers of the bird flu in America.

"They (the state and federal researchers) are the ones who are surveying the issue," Furst said. "It's not to the point of needing to get involved for us."

She said the county health department has sent out informational packets to area hospitals alerting doctors to the symptoms of the bird flu.

"Someone who has a high fever or pneumonia and has traveled to one of those countries recently, they need to get tested so the bird flu could get ruled out," Furst said.

Contact reporter Roman Gokhman at romang@tracypress.com.

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