Wildlife crews test for bird flu strains in Utah

(Dec 12) BRIGHAM CITY - A state biologist takes a fecal sample from a tundra swan and sends it to a lab.

It is a small but significant step to determine whether bird flu has reached Utah.

There is no sign that the deadly Asian strain has hit U.S. soil, but the possibility is keeping wildlife officials in Utah on the perch.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources said it has samples from 1,180 birds and hopes to have 120 more when the duck-hunting season ends Jan. 20.

The state is taking fecal samples from ducks shot at Farmington Bay and Migratory Bird Refuge. They include tundra swans, northern pintails, northern shovelers and green-winged teal.

There could be a chance that the birds nested on Alaska's northern coast and had contact with a migratory Asian bird that nested nearby in Russia.

''It's a long shot for one of our birds to actually come in contact with the birds from Asia, but, hey, who knows?'' said Spencer Atkinson, a state biologist.

At least 154 people have been killed by the H5N1 virus since it turned up in Asia in 2003. The disease has spread to Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Most human cases have been traced to people who work on large poultry farms.

Except for a steady stream of human cases in Indonesia, the current flu epicenter, the past year's worries about a catastrophic global outbreak largely

Some experts suspect poultry vaccination has complicated detection. Vaccination reduces the amount of virus circulating, but low levels of the virus may still be causing outbreaks - without the obvious signs of dying birds.

It might be seasonal in part. Bird flu tends to be most active in the colder months, as the virus survives longer at low temperatures.

''Many of us are holding our breath to see what happens in the winter,'' said Malik Peiris, a microbiology professor at Hong Kong University. ''H5N1 spread very rapidly last year,'' Peiris said. ''So the question is, was that a one-off incident?''

The virus could mutate into a pandemic strain, said Keiji Fukuda, coordinator of the World Health Organization's global influenza program, but it could also go the other direction, becoming less dangerous for humans. (www.sltrib.com)


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