- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2006

Two wild mute swans in Michigan have tested positive for a low-level bird flu — not the highly infectious strain that has ravaged birds in Asia, Africa and Europe and has killed 139 persons, federal officials said yesterday.

The swans, which showed no signs of illness, are still undergoing testing as part of an avian-influenza surveillance program but “pose no threat to human health,” said the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“This is an expected development. It’s not surprising,” said Dr. Richard Slemons, an associate professor of veterinary preventive medicine at Ohio State University and bird-flu specialist.

“Now that we have a lot of money available to look for these viruses, we’ll find them,” he said.

Final test results from the Lake Erie swans are expected in two weeks.

The deadly strain of bird flu, often referred to as the “Asian” H5N1, has not been found in the United States. Scientists fear the virus might eventually mutate so that there would be human-to-human transmission, leading to a pandemic.

Millions of birds have died in countries where Asian H5N1 has been detected. The virus has infected 238 persons in 10 countries, most of whom have had direct contact with infected birds.

Dr. Slemons said low-level strains occur naturally in wild birds and are not are not closely related to the more deadly kinds.

“The virus could move into backyard flocks, so it is a little concerning. But this is not a new threat,” he said.

Dr. Slemons also observed that it “causes no clinical illness” to birds or humans.

He acknowledged there is always the potential the virus could mutate and become dangerous to humans.

Dr. Slemons cited the unpredictability of avian-flu viruses. He said the 1983 outbreak, which resulted in the infections and slaughters of millions of chickens, “occurred when a low pathogenic flu virus, H5N2, got into Pennsylvania.”

“But today the large commercial poultry is constantly monitoring (for avian influenza),” he said.

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