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VOL. 120 | NO. 242 | Monday, December 5, 2005

Local Researchers Study Avian Flu Threat

By Andy Meek

Print | Front Page | Email this story | Email reporter | Comments ()
Avian Flu Facts

In the U.S., there is currently no recognized public health risk associated with wild bird contact.

In ducks, the prevalence of avian flu viruses peaks in late summer and early fall. Outside of this period, infection rates are often lower than 1 percent.

It's hard to miss the fact that the world is on edge over a strain of influenza that regularly kills birds and could someday expand its deadly reach among humans.

It's especially hard to miss when world leaders say the worst-case scenario is so frightening that much more should have been done long ago to be ready for it. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said as much in a recent interview with Newsweek, giving his take on the H5N1 strain of avian flu that has caused the deaths of more than 100 million domesticated birds since 2003, infected 122 people since 2004 and killed 62 of them.

"There have been many who foresaw this and urged the country to begin preparations sooner," Leavitt said. "And it would have been better if we had done so."

Memphis research. One of the voices that has warned for years about the virus' frightening potential has come from Memphis. It belongs to Dr. Robert Webster, who joined the faculty of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in 1968 and who spends three months each year in Asia, which has long been ground zero for new flu strains.

A few weeks ago, Webster met with senior biologists from Ducks Unlimited to discuss the virus, which is especially generating buzz among outdoorsmen. DU is the world's largest wetland and waterfowl conservation group and, like Webster's lab, it is headquartered in Memphis.

Risk for hunters? The biologists had some questions for Webster on behalf of the 1.5 million duck hunters in the United States and nearly 600,000 members of DU. Foremost among them: Do waterfowl hunters in the U.S. have anything to fear about the dreaded flu strain?

Webster's answer: Not yet.

"We've got people who are out there on a regular basis, our employees, who handle waterfowl," said DU spokesman Gregg Patterson. "And then our members, a lot of them are duck hunters.

"So at some point during the year, they are going to come into direct contact with waterfowl - through duck hunting - and it made sense to sit down with one of the world's leading authorities and ask, 'Is there an issue here?'"

"We've got people who are out there on a regular basis, our employees, who handle waterfowl. And then our members, a lot of them are duck hunters. So at some point during the year, they are going to come into direct contact with waterfowl - through duck hunting - and it made sense to sit down with one of the world's leading authorities and ask, 'Is there an issue here?'"
- Gregg Patterson
spokesman, Ducks Unlimited

Waterfowl center. That answer is as likely to come from Memphis as anywhere else. Webster's Memphis lab is the World Health Organization's Collaborating Center on the Ecology of Influenza Viruses in Lower Animals and Birds.

As evidence of the strong interest in duck hunting and waterfowl issues in Memphis, the city lured the Federal Duck Stamp Art Competition away from Washington, D.C., this year for the first time in 71 years. One chairman of the event, Memphis businessman Billy Dunavant, was also a driving force behind DU's move to Memphis in 1992.

Webster has studied influenza since the 1960s, and his work has taken him everywhere from Peru to the Great Barrier Reef. As the WHO's leading authority on the virus, he is literally indispensable to the medical and scientific communities.

"And he said there should be absolutely no difference for waterfowl hunters this year as there has been in the past," Patterson said. "They should just go out and hunt as they always have hunted."

The DU officials who met with Webster also were concerned about overreaction. Some outdoors-
men have canceled duck hunting trips recently, according to the organization. Others have decided to stay away from the duck blind for the entire season out of fear of the virus.

Deadly strain. Strains of avian flu aren't anything new to waterfowl biology and the poultry industry. But what's got scientists and researchers spooked is the new, highly pathogenic H5N1 virus brewing in Southeast Asia, said Nicholas Throckmorton, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The deadly strain of the virus has incubated for years in that area and recently expanded to Eastern Europe. Poultry and fowl are especially at risk, and millions of birds throughout Asia have been killed as officials attempt to stop its spread.

"So this fall, the FWS - as well as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Geological Survey - were all worried that it appeared wild, migrating birds could be spreading around avian influenza, this high-path H5N1," Throckmorton said. "We started surveying birds coming from Asia into Alaska, and we found no highly pathogenic H5N1, which to us means that it probably didn't make the jump to North America via wild, migrating birds."

Matter of time? According to DU, until the Asian strain of H5N1 is found in birds in North America, there is no risk of contracting the flu from birds here. How long that remains the case, though, is another question.

"Dr. Webster explained to us that that particular strain of H5N1 which cropped up originally in Asia has not been detected in any way, shape or form in the Americas," Patterson said. "So it's not here - that's the good news in the short term.

"The bad news in the long run was, he believes, that it will eventually make its way here."

Road to understanding. Webster was unavailable for comment about the disease he has so aggressively tracked. He left on Nov. 17 for his regular trip to the University of Hong Kong, returning to the front lines of what he would argue is the most alarming, deadly medical drama facing the world today.

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