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Carlsbad, New Mexico: Local scientists assisting with bird flu research

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  • Carlsbad, New Mexico: Local scientists assisting with bird flu research

    Local scientists assisting with bird flu research

    By Kyle Marksteiner
    Article Launched: 03/20/2007 10:03:09 PM MDT

    CARLSBAD — Some Carlsbad scientists believe a native scavenger bird may ultimately be the key to tracking bird flu and other diseases in migratory birds.

    "We want to establish a reliable, consistent detection system, because, according to the World Health Association, the number one problem with avian flu is preparedness. Communities are simply not prepared," said Doug Lynn, interim director of Carlsbad's Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management.

    There's no concern of an immediate or even eventual danger of bird flu spreading through the county, Lynn noted. It's just a matter of scientists in the area assisting with the research on a global issue.

    "I don't want to create a panic," he said. "This is nothing but our putting in a detection system so our community and communities like ours can be better prepared. The science is here."

    The Center of Excellence, according to its mission statement, is focused on innovative approaches to the management and mitigation of hazardous materials and the problems they present to the planet. The center has been funded through the Department of Energy since 2004 with the purpose of keeping research and development-related jobs

    One of the center's first grants, Lynn noted, involved environmental monitoring. Bird flu typically refers to the H5N1 subtype, a dangerous strain of the disease that has spread rapidly after first appearing in Asia.

    For the last two years, the center has had the idea to study the Chihuahuan raven, a scavenger bird native to the area.

    "We're attempting to use it as what we refer to as an environmental sentinel," Lynn said.

    Scientists, Lynn said, know that bird flu has manifested itself in China and Russia. They believe it is possible for the strain to eventually work its way down through Alaska with migratory birds. Related strains have also been identified in North America.

    At the same time, scientists, including scientists with the center, are hypothesizing that the dangerous strain of bird flu could also eventually reach the United States by way of Mexico.

    "While we were getting this project together, the World Health Organization put together the same hypothesis," Lynn said.

    If a migratory bird flying over Eddy County is a carrier of a disease, it might die in an isolated area. It would be difficult for scientists to find such a bird, but it would be far easier to find the scavenger ravens, who likely feasted on the diseased bird.

    "Ravens being scavengers, they will most likely come in contact with these carcasses, and they aren't going to eat just one," Lynn said.

    It's all still hypothetical, but scientists believe they may be able to conduct swab samples of the ravens to provide a picture of the health of birds passing through during migratory season.

    The center, Lynn said, is working with the New Mexico Department of Health's Department of Veterinary Sciences Division. In a few months, an experienced professor, Marco Restani, will likely lead a group of graduate students into the area to survey ravens. The group will be on "raven patrol" throughout southeastern New Mexico and a west Texas down to the border with Mexico.

    The ravens themselves may not get sick, said Wren Stroud, media relations director for the center, but they could be carriers of the disease.

    "During the nesting season, the nestlings are very accessible," Lynn said. "We're not invasive. We won't kill any birds. What we're going to do is collect smears from the birds that will be turned over to the Department of Health and the Center for Disease Control."

    A report with results will be submitted to the center's board of directors for review and approval. Information will then go to the New Mexico Department of Health and be published at the Center's Web site.

    The Center of Excellence will conduct quality assurance checks on the project.

    "We'll also be sending some of our personnel to the field with them," Lynn said.

    The ultimate goal is to find out of the raven is a good sentinel species and, if so, what diseases are inside its prey. The process could also be used to track West Nile, Lynn said.

    "We hope that leads us to setting an international standard for detection," Lynn said. "If we determine these are good sentinel species, that gives us the basis for extending this study almost in perpetuity."

    The Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management is probably best known for its research in developing methods of biodiesel production and biodiesel feed stocks — specifically through the potential use of algae.

    "We also are working on lesser prairie chickens," Lynn noted. "We want to embark on a conservation strategy."

    Prairie chickens, bird flu and algae make for quite a varied days' work.

    "The umbrella is applied science," Stroud noted "We're all about applied science."

    The Center of Excellence isn't alone in bringing avian flu research to the area. This week, Los Alamos National Laboratory was awarded $861,789 in federal funds to advance development of an avian flu detection device that will be simple to use, according to a press release. The device would allow for rapid avian flu detection at point-of-care.

    The grant, according to the office of Senator Pete Domenici, R-N.M., is awarded under the allergy, immunology, and transplantation research program. Funding will be subcontracted to the University of New Mexico for similar research.

    "It's different than what we're doing," Lynn said. "But we think flu detection cartridges would be useful doing the field research we're doing. We would like to work with them, and we plan to contact them."