State and federal scientists are drawing battle lines against the Asian H5N1 flu virus in Alaska, extending from the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta to the state's small domestic bird flocks.
The virus has not been detected in Alaska. Still, large shorebirds that may harbor the virus are now migrating up the Asian coast and will arrive in Alaska within two weeks, state officials said Wednesday.
Other birds could pick up the disease from the traveling birds and they could carry it into the Lower 48 on the four major North American flyways.
Wild bird monitoring stations have been set up all over Alaska, except the Panhandle, which is not on the Asian bird migration route.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game encourages hunters to continue to hunt and eat wild migratory birds, but to avoid dead or sick birds and take extra care in handling carcasses and cooking meat.
Though no cases of human disease from Asian H5N1-infected wild birds have been recorded yet, one potential case is under investigation in Azerbaijan, said Matt Robus, director of wildlife conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
State advises caution with dead birds
Alaskans who find a group of sick or dead birds are asked to call a statewide toll-free hotline, (866) 527-3358. Domestic birds with symptoms should be quarantined.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game instructions for hunters include:
Do not handle or butcher animals that are sick or found dead.
Wear rubber gloves and do not eat, drink or smoke while cleaning game.
Wash hands with soap and water, or alcohol wipes, immediately after handling game.
Wash tools and work surfaces with soap and hot water, then disinfect with a 10 percent solution of chlorine bleach.
Cook game bird meat to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.
State officials ask that subsistence gatherers also take care in the field. For example, berries, bird eggs and vegetation that may have been contaminated by bird droppings should be carefully washed.
alaskans can monitor the status of the virus and obtain tips for human and animal safety in alaska at http://www.avianflu.alaska.gov.
Fish and Game, the state Department of Health and Social Services and the Department of Environmental Conservation are teaming up on H5N1 detection and prevention in Alaska. The departments gave a joint presentation to the Legislature Wednesday.
State officials said as many as 15,000 Alaska samples from live and dead wild birds, in addition to samples from domestic birds, bird feces and feces-contaminated water, will be sent to state and federal labs this summer in an interagency effort to track the potential spread of the disease.
A proposal, House Bill 380, now under consideration by the Legislature would give the state authority to quarantine animals that are not livestock.
The state does not currently have that authority. That is problematic because human illness associated with the Asian H5N1 virus has been associated with backyard bird flocks, state officials said Wednesday.
The state's environmental health division is also seeking federal authority to test bird samples for avian flu as soon as April.
"It is essential that a facility in Alaska has the capacity to test bird sample results so we can quickly identify threats and protect public health," said Kristin Ryan, the division director.
The state's director of public health noted Wednesday that one of the biggest challenges in dealing with the disease will be effective communication with the public. Dr. Richard Mandsager said Alaskans should not panic but he warned that a human pandemic could overwhelm the state's health care delivery system if not handled properly.
Proper public health measures involve community planning and educating family physicians.
"The individual's role is to be aware and practice good health habits," Mandsager added.
The governor's budget calls for the purchase of roughly $1.2 million-worth of Tamiflu, a drug that may help limit the virus' symptoms and its spread. The House's version of the budget bill whittles that spending to $500,000, but the cost of the drug has reduced so that the actual number of doses would not be reduced, Mandsager said.
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Any positive initial test results for Asian H5N1 will be relayed immediately to the public, Mandsager said.
State Veterinarian Bob Gerlach said the state will modify its advice to the public if and when the virus is detected in Alaska. Quarantines would be enforced until the tests were confirmed, he said.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at email@example.com.