CONTACT:
Mark Ellingwood, NHFG Wildlife Division, (603) 271-2461
Ed Robinson, NHFG Wildlife Division, (603) 271-2461
John McConnell, Director NH/VT USDA Wildlife Services, (603) 223-6832
Jane Vachon, NHFG Public Affairs, (603) 271-3211
August 17, 2006

N.H. Fish and Game Tests for Avian Flu in Wild Birds

CONCORD, N.H. -- Since the first H5N1 avian influenza-related deaths in Hong Kong in 1997, governments, health agencies and researchers across the globe have tracked the virus as it crept through Asia, Europe and Africa. The U.S. has a strategic plan in place outlining nationwide monitoring methods, which include encouraging all states to help collect data on migratory wild and agricultural birds. In May 2006, New Hampshire became the first of the lower 48 states to initiate wild bird monitoring under the national plan, testing for avian influenza, or "bird flu," among visiting and resident birds.

"While we don't anticipate finding avian influenza in New Hampshire birds at this early date, this monitoring helps ensure that if bird flu does arrive, we'll detect it early and be in a position to respond quickly," said New Hampshire Fish and Game Department Wildlife Programs Administrator Mark Ellingwood. He noted that because Fish and Game has a statewide presence and trained staff skilled at handling and capturing wildlife, the agency is uniquely positioned to monitor wildlife populations. "Fish and Game biologists are actively involved in monitoring for diseases such as Chronic Wasting Disease, rabies, West Nile Virus -- and now, H5N1 Avian Influenza," he said. "In the process, we're safeguarding the health of both human and wildlife populations."

The highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of bird flu has not been detected in North America and -- equally important -- bird flu is not readily transmitted among humans. Human contraction of H5N1 in Asia has generally resulted from extremely close contact with infected domestic fowl. The concern is that H5N1 may mutate, and in doing so, become readily transmittable from human to human, thus increasing the risk of a pandemic. "This risk warrants our concern and justifies the formulation of broad contingencies in the event that the virus arrives here or mutates in such a way as to become a potential pandemic," Ellingwood said. "Early detection is a key component of minimizing risk. The earlier we recognize the possible arrival of bird flu in North America, the better our opportunity will be to contain it."

Highly pathogenic avian flu has been detected in more than 50 countries on three continents, and scientists have noticed that its spread has coincided with wild bird migratory patterns. While poultry production has been the source of human infection (through handling and close contact with birds in infected countries, not consumption of poultry), new worldwide efforts also focus on stopping its spread to other countries by monitoring wild bird migrations. The exact role of wild migratory birds in the spread of avian influenza is still unclear, but future research, such as the use of radio transmitters on migratory bird species, will help to identify any potential carriers. The virus could also be spread through shipments in the legal wild bird pet trade (if appropriate testing and quarantines are not used) or through the illegal smuggling of wild birds, poultry or fowl.

In the U.S., no cases of highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu have been detected in commercial poultry, wild birds or humans. State and federal agencies continue their efforts to monitor bird populations and are poised to quickly identify avian flu if it arrives in North America. The US Department of Agriculture has tested over 12,000 migratory birds in the Alaska flyway since 1998 and 4,000 migratory birds in the Atlantic flyway since 2000. All the samples were negative for HP-H5N1 avian flu.

In 2005, the U.S. established a National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Preparedness, and soon after, the U.S. Department of the Interior, USDA, Health and Human Services, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and representatives of state wildlife, animal health and public health agencies developed "An Early Detection System for Asian H5N1 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in Wild Migratory Birds -- U.S. Interagency Strategic Plan." The plan's strategies include the investigation of disease-outbreak events in wild birds, expanded monitoring of live wild birds, monitoring of hunter-killed birds, use of sentinel animals such as backyard poultry flocks, and environmental sampling of water and bird feces. The cooperating agencies are hoping to collect about 75,000 to 100,000 samples from dead and live birds and 50,000 water and/or fecal samples from high-risk waterfowl habitats in 2006.

After the national approach was laid out, New Hampshire quickly formed plans for statewide protection and monitoring efforts. The state has recently updated its state pandemic plan, initially formulated in 2001. The N.H. Department of Health and Human Services, N.H. Department of Agricultural Markets and Food, N.H. Fish and Game, and USDA Wildlife Services and Veterinary Services all serve on the recently established New Hampshire Avian Influenza Task Force to exchange information, coordinate training, plan sampling efforts and share results.

To contribute to the efforts of the national monitoring plan, N.H. Fish and Game and USDA Wildlife Services biologists will continue to collect live bird samples, environmental (fecal) samples and samples from hunter-killed or dead birds. Bird species that have been tested include wild turkey, common tern, Canada goose, mallards, wood ducks, black ducks, herring gull and pigeon. Biologists hope to collect 1,100 live bird samples and 1,000 fecal samples in the course of this year's monitoring activities. So far, a total of 512 live birds have been sampled in New Hampshire -- approximately 114 wild turkeys, 40 terns, 2 ducks and 356 geese. In addition, more than 100 wild bird fecal samples from flocks and congregations throughout the state have been collected and sent for testing. To date, tests for all collected samples in N.H. have been negative for H5N1 avian influenza.

"It is important to remember that highly pathogenic avian influenza has not been detected in the U.S. and that biologists and researchers across the country are working efficiently to monitor for its possible arrival here," said Ellingwood. "New Hampshire is a leader in these efforts and will continue this research in support of the national program."

For more information on avian flu:

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