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Tuesday, March 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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More avian-flu testing for wild birds in U.S.

The Washington Post

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WASHINGTON — Federal officials announced plans Monday to sharply increase testing of wild birds to try to detect the arrival of the deadly avian flu in the United States as early as possible and stanch any outbreaks of disease.

With the virus spreading worldwide, officials predicted it could show up in this country as soon as later this year, most likely in wild birds during their annual migration from Asia through Alaska.

"It is increasingly likely that we will detect a highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian flu in birds within U.S. borders, possibly as early as this year," Interior Secretary Gale Norton said in announcing the plan with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt. "We are working together to expand our early-warning system."

The dangerous virus has spread from Asia into parts of Europe and Africa, killing or forcing the destruction of millions of chickens and other birds. So far the virus has mainly affected birds, but it has killed 98 people, about half of those who have been infected. All the victims had close contact with poultry. Officials fear the virus could mutate in a way that makes it spread easily from person to person, sparking a worldwide pandemic.

U.S. wildlife experts have been monitoring wild migratory birds since the virus emerged in Asia in 1997. They have tested 12,000 birds in Alaska since 1998 and 4,000 traveling across the Atlantic since 2000. Officials have been focusing on Alaska because it is a crossroads for bird migration. No birds have tested positive.

Under the new plan, officials expect to collect 75,000 to 100,000 samples from live and dead wild birds this year, along with 50,000 samples of water or feces from waterfowl habitats across the United States.

In Washington state, wildlife officials plan increased testing of migratory birds. Swabs will be taken of some live birds being banded for population studies, and some birds will be tested at stations set up for checking hunters' catches. Additional stations may also be set up when resident birds return in the fall from Alaska nesting areas, said Dr. Kristin Mansfield, veterinarian for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The department already tests some dead birds. Migratory waterfowl such as ducks and geese are of special interest, Mansfield said.

Johanns said: "None of us can build a cage around the United States. We have to be prepared to deal with the virus here."

If an infected bird is detected, officials plan to immediately quarantine the area and kill any infected birds to stem the spread of the virus. In addition to human health concerns, officials worry that the virus could devastate the $29 billion poultry industry.

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Commercial poultry companies already test every flock for bird flu. Authorities say that cooking kills the virus and that it is safe to eat properly handled and cooked poultry.

Officials stressed that they expect perhaps dozens of false alarms because of increased testing, and that even if a genuine case is found, it does not necessarily mean an outbreak will occur.

The Food and Drug Administration also announced a plan to ban the use of human flu drugs on agricultural poultry to preserve their effectiveness in people in the event of an outbreak.

Material from Seattle Times staff reporter Warren King and The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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