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Possible bird flu detected in U.S.
posted by admin on 16/08/06
Federal officials say virus found in Michigan likely not a risk to humans
By LAURAN NEERGAARD
WASHINGTON - All year, the government has promised stepped-up testing to see if bird flu wings its way to the United States. On Monday, the Bush administration announced those tests got a hit — but the suspect isn't the much-feared Asian strain of the virus.
In almost the same breath, Agriculture Department officials announced that routine testing had turned up the possibility of the H5N1 virus in the two swans on the shore of Michigan's Lake Erie — but that genetic testing has ruled out the so-called highly pathogenic version that has ravaged poultry and killed at least 138 people elsewhere in the world.
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"We do not believe this virus represents a risk to human health," declared Ron DeHaven, administrator of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. "This is not the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus that has spread through much of other parts of the world."
Must be confirmed
If he's right — and it will take up to two weeks to confirm — then Monday became almost a dress rehearsal for the day the notorious Asian version of H5N1 really arrives in North America.
Wild birds, especially waterfowl, are flu's natural reservoir — they carry a multitude of influenza viruses. Sometimes, those strains jump species, and if it's a flu virus very different from one people have experienced before, a worldwide epidemic could result.
That's why scientists have closely tracked the virulent H5N1 strain since it began its global march in late 2003. It is blamed for the death or destruction of millions of birds overseas. Scientists worry that the virus eventually could mutate to become easily spread from person to person.
Last week, the government expanded the bird-testing program to encompass the entire nation, after initial sampling mostly in Alaska.
Twenty mute swans from a Monroe County, Mich., game area were among the first new batches of tests. That testing found the possibility of H5N1 in two of the swans.
Genetic testing ruled out the deadly Asian strain. In fact, USDA said the virus' genes suggest it's similar to a low-grade North American version of H5N1, a virus found here in wild ducks in 1975 and 1986 and on a Michigan turkey farm in 2003.
"This is no surprise," DeHaven stressed.
Plus, all the swans appeared healthy, a good signal, he said. The virulent form of H5N1 usually rapidly sickens birds.
So why Monday's announcement? The reason was to be open about all this testing, DeHaven said. And even low-pathogenic H5N1 requires monitoring because it has the potential to mutate into the more virulent form, he added.
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