Department of the Interior

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Office of the Secretary
For Immediate Release:
October 26, 2005

A. B. Wade - (703) 648-4460
Hugh Vickery - (202) 208-6416

Efforts Underway to Study Bird Flu

Today, the Department of the Interior outlined its efforts and those of its partners in investigating highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in migratory birds and what plans are underway to protect the health of millions of visitors to Department-managed lands as well as employees.

"The Department of the Interior is responsible for managing wildlife, including migratory birds, and for ensuring public health on more than 500 million acres of federal land across the country," said Tom Weimer, senior advisor to Secretary of the Interior. "To carry out these responsibilities, the Department and its partners are investigating avian influenza in migratory birds and making plans to protect human health."

Even though HPAI has caused mortality in nearly 60 species of wild birds in Asia and Europe, there are no reported cases of people becoming infected from migratory birds.

In conjunction with the State of Alaska, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Geological Survey biologists have been strategically sampling migratory birds for H5N1 in the Pacific Flyway for several months.

"These efforts complement a series of ongoing avian influenza studies being conducted by the USDA and its university partners in Alaska, where birds that regularly migrate between Asia and North America are known to congregate and to nest. Thus far, H5N1 has not been detected in any wild bird sampled."

Federal efforts are already underway for planning a coordinated and more comprehensive surveillance and detection program. This program is being designed to provide an early warning should migratory birds be found to carry the virus.

Thus far, the H5N1 strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza has not been detected in North America. However, according to Weimer, "the expanding global spread of H5N1 increases the likelihood that it will eventually be detected here. Introduction of this virus by wild migratory birds is just one possible pathway that the Departments of Agriculture and Interior are working together to address."

The U.S. Geological Survey, the scientific arm of the Department, is supporting international HPAI research efforts by contributing information and world-class expertise about migratory birds and their movements. USGS has a long history of responding to wildlife disease emergencies and conducting wildlife disease investigations.

Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for managing the National Wildlife Refuge System, and many of the 545 refuges provide critical nesting, migration, and wintering habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. The Fish and Wildlife Service also carries out permitting and enforcement responsibilities under federal laws governing trade in wildlife species and products, and works with USDA/APHIS to regulate the importation of wild birds for the pet trade, research, and other purposes.

The National Park Service also has a key role in protecting the health of its visitors and has 32 commissioned officers of the U.S. Public Health Service to meet this important responsibility.