UA researcher on guard for lethal avian flu strain

Few people get to know birds as intimately as George Happ. Armed with a Q-tip and a mission, his team strikes fear into the hearts of fowl around Alaska.

Happ and his team spent the summer swabbing more than 5,000 birds’ rear ends to detect viruses that could become deadly pathogens.

“Our goal is to discover which avian influenza strains reach Alaska in 2005 and 2006,” he said.

Happ, a research professor at UAF and the program director of Alaska IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, is concerned that migratory birds could transmit the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu to North America.

“In this case, Alaska is a place where birds from Asia and North America come to nest,” Happ said. “We are the crossover point between the hemispheres, so we need to screen them to determine what subtypes of influenza are reaching us.”

The possibility of a bird flu pandemic has become the subject of increasing public concern in recent years. The World Health Organization has now confirmed that the virus has spread to Turkey, and figures released Oct. 10 show the human mortality rate from the infection of H5N1 strain of the avian flu at 51 percent, with a current total of 60 deaths worldwide.

Some options for dealing with a pandemic include vaccination, anti-viral drugs and, in extreme cases, quarantine.

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President Bush weighed in on the matter in a press conference Oct. 4 when he asked Congress to examine the idea of using regular military troops in a worst-case scenario to supplement the National Guard.

“One option is the use of a military that’s able to plan and move,” he said. “And so that’s why I put it on the table. I think it’s an important debate for Congress to have.”

Rebecca Hultberg, spokeswoman for Gov. Murkowski, said Murkowski has not yet taken an official position on the President’s proposal. Some governors are not pleased by the proposal, saying it would take away their authority during a time of emergency.

Chuck Canterbury, the media-relations officer for the U.S. Army in Alaska, said if the President called upon Alaskan soldiers, they would be prepared.

He said securing roads and buildings is part of the training standard all soldiers are required to meet.

“In Afghanistan before the elections, we had more than a battalion of our troops securing the area to allow the vote to occur,” Canterbury said.

This experience would easily translate into helping the U.S. government enforce a domestic quarantine, should one become necessary, he said.

Nearly 5,000 of the approximately 9,000 soldiers stationed in Alaska are currently deployed to the Middle East and elsewhere, but the Army would still be able to effectively respond to a major disaster at home, Canterbury said.

Dr. Jay Butler, the director of the Arctic Investigations Program component of the Centers for Disease Control, explained why quarantine could become necessary.

“A quarantine will buy us time, but it won’t stop a pandemic,” he said. “It will only give us time to distribute drugs.”

Butler said a vaccine for H5N1 is in production but in limited supply because it takes nearly nine months to develop, and the rapid mutation of the H5N1 strain makes it difficult to develop a vaccine that will be effective in the future.

There are two anti-viral drugs that have proven somewhat effective in fighting this strain, Butler said, but they also are in short supply. The drugs, Oseltamivir and Zanamivir, are neuraminidase inhibitors, which means they block production of an influenza protein needed for the virus to spread to other cells.

Dr. Beth Funk, the acting state epidemiologist with the Alaska Division of Public Health, said a quarantine may not be effective because people with the flu are infectious as much as 24 hours before they show symptoms. She is also hesitant about how reliable the anti-viral drugs are.

“Anti-viral drugs might be effective on H5N1 right now,” she said, “but influenza is notorious for developing resistance to drugs.”

Funk said in a state of emergency, the state and federal governments would have authority to shut down large facilities, though it is probable most would voluntarily comply. The department of health has authority to issue quarantines without a state of emergency being declared.

“With a prevention strategy, such as mass distribution of vaccines or medicines, the department of health would distribute the medications provided by the strategic national stockpile,” she said.

Funk said there are only enough of the drugs in the stockpile to treat a small fraction of the U.S. population, however.

UAF’s George Happ, meanwhile, said there is generally a serious epidemic every 40 years, and the last major flu outbreak occurred in 1968. He is concerned the virus, which is now spreading to different regions, may increase the chance of it mutating into a form that is easily spread between humans.

So far, the virus has not been able to pass easily among humans.

Happ said H5N1 is a pure bird virus, not a re-assortment, which means it has no human virus characteristics mixed with it.

“The concern is that with a pure bird virus, people don’t have any antibodies,” he said. “So it can blow right past our defenses.”