- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The secretary of the Homeland Security Department yesterday echoed warnings by scientists that Asian bird flu will soon arrive in the Western Hemisphere, but cautioned against hitting the “panic button.”

Michael Chertoff said “there will be a reasonable possibility of a domestic fowl outbreak” as a result of the flu virus carried by migrating birds, but reminded reporters that the Agriculture Department has dealt with other strains of bird flu for years.

“If we get a wild bird or even a domestic chicken that gets infected with avian flu, we’re going to be able to deal with it, because we’ve got a lot of experience with that,” Mr. Chertoff said.

The spring migration of birds from Asia to Alaska is expected to start next month, and this year it will encounter an expanded federal screening project to test birds for the flu virus.

Scientists worry that birds arriving in Alaska may bring in the potentially deadly H5N1 virus and pass it along to other birds, which will then fly south in the fall.

A top U.N. health official said this week that H5N1 could arrive in the Americas within six to 12 months or even sooner.

Scientists already had been watching for the strain in wild birds in Alaska and North American migratory flyways. But the effort is being dramatically stepped up this year, said Dr. John Clifford, chief veterinarian for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Scientists will study live birds, others that are found dead or killed by hunters, and environmental samples that might carry the worrisome form of bird flu. While most concern about birds flying south through the United States focuses on their Pacific route in the western states, other migratory paths will be included, Dr. Clifford said.

The goal is to test 75,000 to 100,000 live or dead birds this year, said the USDA’s Angela Harless. The testing, to include some Pacific islands, will focus on waterfowl and shorebirds.

The H5N1 flu strain has killed at least 95 persons since 2003, mostly in Asia, according to the World Health Organization, and has devastated poultry stocks. Scientists are concerned that the virus could mutate into a form easily spread among people and become a pandemic.

Mr. Chertoff yesterday acknowledged that H5N1 will likely make its first North American appearance this year.

“I can’t predict, but I certainly have to say that we should be prepared for the possibility that at some point in the next few months a wild fowl will come over the migratory pathway and will be infected with H5N1,” the Homeland Security secretary said.

If a bird-flu case is confirmed in the United States, Mr. Chertoff said the Homeland Security Department would have specific plans to deal with it, including watching to see if it developed human health characteristics. “But it would not be time to push the panic button,” he said.

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