(Ed. Note Nov 17 2010: In the initial version of this article, the FAO was unfortunately omitted as a research partner.)
The H5N1 virus -- the cause of highly pathogenic avian influenza -- continues to be a global health concern. Since 1997, 500 human infections have been detected throughout Asia and North Africa, of which 300 were fatal. The toll has been even higher for birds, with over 250 million domestic poultry lost to the disease.
Although H5N1 has not yet been detected in the United States, USGS researchers are working with international partners to determine the risk of persistence of the virus.
|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.
To examine the risk of H5N1's spread, USGS researchers like Diann Prosser at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and John Takekawa at WERC's San Francisco Bay Estuary Field Station are tracking waterfowl migrations in partnership with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Using over 500 GPS satellite-transmitters placed on 12 different species of waterfowl, researchers can map and compare the migration times, habitat use and geographic distribution of North American and Asian birds.
The USGS studies are collaborative efforts with wildlife and disease experts with the United Nations and several countries in Asia, and could help health officials stay a step ahead of this global disease.
"We often forget that wildlife studies can directly benefit human society," says Takekawa. "This is just one example of how natural history research can have global implications."
You can read more about Chinese and USGS avian flu research in the October 15th issue of Science magazine (subscription required).
-- Ben Young Landis
Top: USGS scientists John Takekawa and Diann Prosser complete a health check on a wild Bar-Headed Goose (Anser indicus) in Qinghai, China. In 2005 a large die-off of this and other waterfowl species at the Qinghai Lake Nature Reserve alerted researchers to the H5N1 virus's impact on migratory birds. Image credit: USGS.