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Scientists at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center study the many ecosystems of the Pacific Southwest. Follow our expeditions and projects through this outreach page, and learn more about your local landscape with our library of Outreach Factsheets and photos. Thanks for joining us!

Ben Young Landis
Outreach and Communications Coordinator

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3020 State University Drive East
Sacramento, CA 95819
Phone: (916) 278-9495
Fax: (916) 278-9475
Email: blandis@usgs.gov
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Bar-headed goose, Qinghai Lake, China --Photographer: Diann Prosser, USGS
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USGS Uncovers New Link in Bird Flu's Global Spread
MONDAY MAR 28 2011
Bird flu -- also known as highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 -- remains a serious threat to our global health and economy. Since 2003 it has killed 300 people, including 18 in 2010, and has led to the culling of more than 250 million domestic poultry throughout Eurasia and Africa. Although H5N1 has not yet been detected in the United States, needless to say global research on the linkages and sources of this disease is of great importance.

This month, USGS researchers published a study uncovering a new link between wild birds and domestic poultry in the spread of H5N1. It is the first evidence of a mechanism for transmission between domestic farms and wild birds.

John Takekawa holding a bar-headed goose in Nepal --Photographer: Salim Javed, Environmental Agency UAE
WERC lead scientist John Takekawa holds a wild Bar-Headed Goose (Anser indicus) in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. The goose is outfitted with a solar-powered GPS satellite transmitter, so researchers can track its migratory path across Asia and known avian flu regions. Image courtesy of Salim Javed/ Environmental Agency, UAE.
The research was led by Diann Prosser of the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and WERC's John Takekawa and Bill Perry, who worked with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences to track 29 individuals of the bar-headed goose (Anser indicus) -- a wild species that migrates across most of Asia and that died in the thousands in the 2005 bird flu outbreak in Qinghai Lake, China.

GPS data showed that wild geese tagged at Qinghai Lake spend their winters in a region outside of Lhasa, the capitol of Tibet, near farms where H5N1 outbreaks have occurred in domestic geese and chickens, where they could have picked up the virus.

The timing works out as well, and the findings are the first evidence of a mechanism for transmission between domestic farms and wild birds. “Our research suggests initial outbreaks in poultry in winter, followed by outbreaks in wild birds in spring and in the breeding season,” says Prosser.

View a map of GPS satellite data of tagged bar-headed geese from Qinghai (updated March 18, 2011)

The potential involvment of wild birds in the spread of H5N1 is thus far unique to the Central Asian Flyway -- a migration path extending from India through China to Siberia. Similar studies east of this region have not found the same relationship between wild birds and disease outbreaks. Nevertheless, the bar-headed goose connection adds another link in our understanding of the virus' global spread.

This research would not have been possible without the support and participation of international partners. "We must realize that we are all globally connected," says Prosser. "What we learn in regions where this virus has become endemic is critical to preparing prevention measures in currently disease-free regions."  

-- Ben Young Landis

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