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Chickens are feared targets of avian flu, especially because of their popularity on the dinner table. Photo: big_chocolate_monster/Flickr.com

In line with my upcoming piece exploring the role of the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in addressing and monitoring wildlife disease, more news suggests animals’ roles as sentinels for diseases affecting both animals and humans. In this case, the article highlights avian influenza.

Avian influenza occasionally maneuvers its way into the public sphere but has become less of a threat in the minds of most Americans in recent years (especially in light of other outbreaks such as swine flu).

In 2006, government agencies began regularly monitoring birds in the United States. Larger migratory birds and domestic birds are more likely to carry the virus — not backyard song birds.

Like other diseases of significant health interest, avian influenza is characterized as a zoonotic disease, or one that can potentially be transmitted among wild animals, domestic animals and humans.

Beginning in 2005, surveillance programs abroad have found the virus in bar-headed geese in China and linked the geese to outbreaks in Chinese poultry farms.

A map of avian influenza’s spread. Photo: Dean_ss/Wikimedia Commons

Although the United States has not experienced nearly as many cases as other areas of the world, scientists have identified strains of avian flu in at least five states in the past decade (these are not cases of the high pathogenicity strain H5N1 in humans, as smartly point out by my colleague Amy Karon, but rather different low pathogenicity strains found among U.S. poultry and the occasional human).

The mortality rate remains at 60 percent among people infected with H5N1, the strain of avian flu with high pathogenicity (to clarify, no H5N1 cases have been found in the United States but have been recorded elsewhere in the world). Researchers are working on developing vaccines for the virus, but its variability each year makes planning ahead difficult.

As our world continues to become increasingly connected, I believe the importance of surveillance programs, especially those with specialties in wildlife disease, will grow.

But amid large federal budget cuts, it’s hard to say whether monitoring programs will be around in full force.

Here is a video from 2004 (sorry, it won’t allow embedding), detailing responses to H5N1 in Thailand.

Only time will tell if monitoring sentinels of this disease will be enough.

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About Me

Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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