As migrating birds return to Alaska this spring, the state will become a focal point in federal efforts to detect the arrival of a potent form of bird flu on U.S. shores.
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Speaking to reporters Monday from Washington, D.C., Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt unveiled a plan to increase monitoring of migratory birds that are likely to bring the bird flu virus to North America.
"If migratory birds carry the highly pathogenic H5N1 or a similarly dangerous virus to the United States, it's most likely to arrive via the Pacific Islands or Alaska," said Norton
Wild migratory birds can serve as both a "pathway" for the disease and an "indicator" of its arrival in the U.S., said Norton.
"Therefore we need a robust system to detect the virus in wild birds as an early warning system," she said.
Federal and state agencies plan to test between 75,000 and 100,000 live and dead migratory birds across the country for the disease, concentrating their efforts on migratory bird nesting areas in Alaska, as well as Central, Atlantic and Mississippi flyways.
The sampling will include testing sick or dead birds, swabbing live and hunter-killed birds, monitoring free-range poultry and waterfowl and sampling the birds' water habitat.
In France the death of wild swans was an early indication of the presence of the H5N1 strain in Europe. Nearly a million domestic fowl were to be culled.
Bush administration officials say the virus is "increasingly likely" to be found in the United States this year, though they caution that its presence does not signal the start of a human pandemic.
The H5N1 virus has killed at least 98 people in Asia, the Middle East and Turkey since 2003, according to the World Health Organization. Experts fear it may mutate into a form passed easily between people and spark a pandemic.
So far no humans have contracted avian flu directly from a migratory bird. Human deaths from the disease have been limited to those working in close contact with poultry.
Administration officials say their goal is a timely and transparent monitoring process.
Norton said she anticipated initial, so-called "presumptive" H5N1 results could be announced 20 to 100 times this year but those first tests would not tell whether the virus was a high or low pathogenic strain.
"It's quite possible we will have dozens of H5N1 reports with not one of them turning out to be the highly pathogenic variety," she said.
Norton said discovery of the bird flu was not a reason to panic and low pathogenic viruses cause little problems in birds and pose no danger to humans.
She said if the highly pathogenic strain is found, the response will depend on the circumstances.
The primary risk to human health however is not from wild birds, she said. And scientists believe that limiting contact between poultry and wild birds is a more effective way to manage the virus than restricting hunting.
She said state agencies are working with subsistence hunters to underscore the importance of handling wild birds in sanitary manner. Properly cooking an infected bird will destroy the virus.
She said culling wild birds is not considered to be an effective means of controlling the disease.
If the pathogenic virus is found in domestic poultry flocks, the USDA will act quickly to quarantine the area, destroy the birds and disinfect the area.