Raptor Center turns its focus to bird flu research

Researching raptors will help scientists learn more about bird flu in general, the center’s director said.

Vadim Lavrusik

With the government warning that migratory birds might bring bird flu into the United States in as little as two months, the University Raptor Center is watching its birds.

Raptor Center director Patrick Redig said he has made a proposal for a grant that would enable the center to monitor and research bird flu through large raptors such as eagles.

Although the center has not begun monitoring the raptors, it has started collecting plasma and had one test two weeks ago, sampling 38 raptors of five species, which all tested negative for avian flu.

The program will focus on avian flu in general, Redig said, but will emphasize the highly pathogenic forms of the virus.

Redig said the center does not plan to find the highly pathogenic form of bird flu, also known as H5N1, which has caused more than 100 human deaths. But researching certain raptors is important because it will help scientists learn more about avian flu in general, he said.

Redig said raptors might serve as sentinels of influenza viruses that are circulating in the wild in others species of birds.

“We’re only talking about several species, simply those that have some to a major component of their diet (that) consists of birds, and particularly those that have waterfowl.”

Redig said the proposed governmental grant is part of a larger proposal, and that he is just one of several investigators.

He said he doesn’t plan on hearing about if the grant has been approved until this summer.

David Halvorson, University professor of avian health, said no one knows when the virus will reach the United States, or even if it will.

“The virus has been in Asia for 10 years and it hasn’t gotten here yet,” Halvorson said. “Until it gets to this country, there is no need to worry at all.”

Although less pathogenic forms of avian flu have been around for many years, strain H5N1 first surfaced in Hong Kong in 1996 and killed six people in 1997, Halvorson said.

Halvorson said this new form of the virus is highly pathogenic and the concern is its potential to mutate and spread from person to person, potentially creating a pandemic.

“It is an animal disease, but occasionally it has killed a person,” Halvorson said. “As it exists today, it is not a big deal.”

Michael Greger, director of public health and animal agriculture for the Humane Society of the United States, said he thinks the situation could become devastating.

“This could be something so catastrophic enough to change the whole spectrum of what the world is like,” Greger said.

Greger said the disease is evolving to better kill humans and that the highly pathogenic virus has great potential to evolve into a pandemic while the government is not adequately prepared.

“We have been lagging behind most developed nations in terms of our preparedness,” Greger said.

Local health organizations are not getting the money they need to learn more about the virus, and the solution might lie in the environment the poultry are kept in, he said.

“Factory farms are breeding grounds for the virus,” Greger said.

He said the conditions inside the factory farms help spread the flu, and people have found the spread of the highly pathogenic strains of the flu only in these conditions.

“If we’re going to raise birds, we need to minimize stress, overcrowding, breeding for immunity; even if these farms had windows, the virus is thought to be killed in sunlight,” Greger said.

Dan Epstein, information officer at the Office of Public Information for the Pan American Health Organization, said there has not been a confirmed transmission of the avian flu from person to person.

People who are infected with the bird flu experience symptoms of severe flu and pneumonia, in which 50 percent of those infected have died, Epstein said.

Redig said bird flu could surface in the United States because of migratory flyways throughout Alaska, in which wild birds will migrate next fall across the continent, crossing the Midwest.

Redig said only those with intimate contact with poultry have been infected with the disease.

“I understand that people are going to worry no matter what we say,” Redig said. “But there are many things in place in this country that will protect people and people can do simple things to protect themselves.”

Redig said the Raptor Center will study antibodies in the bloodstream of the eagles that have been formed as a result of exposure to the virus when they eat sick or dead ducks, which is simpler than going out and catching thousands of ducks.

“In general, the more we know about the ecology of all of the influenza viruses, the better we are going to be in terms of protecting human health and domestic livestock health, as well as wild birds themselves,” Redig said.