- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2006

LEONARDTOWN, Md. (AP) — Herding honking wild geese into pens on a hot, humid July day is the mission of a team of state biologists looking to see whether a potentially deadly strain of the avian-flu virus has reached Maryland.

The Chesapeake Bay is a key stop in the migratory route of the geese, which travel from Canada’s Hudson Bay to North Carolina, prompting the U.S. Department of Agriculture to designate Maryland a “Tier One” state in its monitoring program for the H5N1 bird-flu strain.

Researchers suspect the strain most likely will enter the United States through birds that interact with other migratory birds in the Arctic during the breeding season.

“Avian influenza is common in wild birds,” said Larry Hindman, waterfowl project leader at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as team members flipped over the muscular birds and took fecal swabs.

Team members began collecting the first of 800 planned samples last week and hope to finish this week, visiting wetlands and ponds across the state. These samples will become part of a federal database of 115,000 samples.

“The single most important effort we can make in the classic canary-in-the-coal-mine monitoring is testing wild migratory birds,” said Paul Peditto, director of DNR’s Wildfire and Heritage Service. “We are creating a scientific dragnet to be able to detect the wildlife carrier of H5N1.”

The virus can jump to humans, and scientists worry that it may mutate into a form that spreads easily and rapidly among people, setting off a deadly flu pandemic.

However, the vast majority of the more than 200 human cases globally have come from exposure to infected birds, and there is no evidence that the virus has mutated.

The DNR team is testing the geese during a two-week window when the waterfowl are grounded because they have molted their flight feathers.

In the summer, state biologists conducted a limited sampling, which did not detect the strain. The sampling effort was expanded this year when federal money became available.

Dr. Cindy Driscoll, the state veterinarian, said DNR staff also will check stations and butcher shops during hunting season this fall and winter to collect additional samples.

“It’s too early to tell if H5N1 will come here,” Dr. Driscoll said. “But by conducting preliminary sampling and coordinating with the Agriculture Department, we’re doing as much as we can to be on guard and be ready.”

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