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On a wing and a prayer - Alaska researchers seek clues to bird flu

While Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" made many of us uneasy at the sight of amassing gulls years ago, today public health officials around the world are beginning to cast an equally uneasy eye toward migratory birds, especially in Alaska, following recent outbreaks of avian influenza in Southeast Asia and, last week, in Siberia.

Alaska is at the intersection of the Asian and North American flyways for migratory birds and scientists say that could provide an unusual mixing ground for the evolution of new strains of bird flu - strains that could spread to lower latitudes and possibly jump to other species, including humans.

University of Alaska (UAF) scientists and state and federal biologists from across Alaska have joined forces and formed the University of Alaska Program on the Biology and Epidemiology of Avian Influenza in Alaska to study migratory birds in Alaska and determine how many are infected and how strains of influenza virus jump from one species to another.

Wild birds are the natural hosts of many influenza viral strains that normally do not infect humans. However, recent outbreaks of bird flu in Southeast Asia were caused by a highly pathogenic H5N1 strain and there is increasing evidence that this strain can jump the species barrier and cause severe disease and mortality in humans. A second and even greater concern, according to the World Health Organization, is the possibility that the present situation could give rise to an influenza pandemic in humans akin to the 1918 "Spanish Flu." On Friday, WHO warned that China is not rigorously following up on a recent deadly H5N1 outbreak among wild birds.

The 1918 influenza pandemic killed more than 500,000 people in the United States and as many as 50 million people worldwide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Many died within the first few days after infection; almost half of those who died were healthy, young adults.

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Source:University of Alaska Fairbanks


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