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Bird flu preparedness

Alaskan village may be bird flu bridge to North America

Monday, October 23, 2006 by: Ben Kage
Tags: bird flu preparedness, bird flu prevention, bird flu


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(NewsTarget) The 800 Yup'ik Eskimos who live in Kipnuk, Alaska rarely get visitors to their village, but lately a slew of government scientists have been arriving on bush planes to study the birds of the delta, which they say may be carrying the first traces of bird flu from Asia to North America.

Kipnuk is almost in the dead center of where the East Asia-Australia migration route crosses with the Pacific Americas route. It is a common area for tens of millions of birds to stop and feed on the insects, grasses, worms and mussels found in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge before moving on to their winter destinations.

"If it's going to show up in wild birds, Alaska is the most likely place where it's going to happen," said Brian McCaffery, a federal wildlife biologist who is testing bar-tailed godwit droppings for the disease just a few miles down the coast from Kipnuk.

The Yup'ik have long relied on the wild birds as a food source, so federal officials have recruited local hunters to assist in testing the 29 birds species that authorities say are most likely to carry the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus.

Since the latest strain of bird flu hit in 2003, it has caused millions of birds to die or be culled, 256 people to fall sick, and 151 human fatalities. The endangerment of the primary food source has caused tension around the town, since the nearest Wal-Mart is almost 500 miles away. The summer months have relieved some of that tension, but as tribal operation manager Steven Mann, said, "We don't joke about what we eat here."

The village's denizens are not entirely sure why their village has become so important to bird flu testing, but health officials say it was chosen because it is only a few miles from the Bering Sea and has a vigorous hunting trade. The villagers hunt all through the summer to stock up on birds.

So far, no bird flu has been found in the 18,000 samples that government inspectors have collected all over the state, but Mann's son Danny -- who tests birds for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. tribal health agency -- said the sheer number of birds that visit the area means it is "not a matter of if, but when."

"Whenever I see birds, I always think what birds will be the first to get bird flu around here," he said.

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