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State to ask hunters to help search for bird flu

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  • State to ask hunters to help search for bird flu

    News: Health, Santa Fe / NM
    State to ask hunters to help search for bird flu

    By WES SMALLING | The New Mexican
    May 13, 2006

    This fall and winter, waterfowl hunters in some areas of New Mexico will be asked to have their prey tested for the deadly H5N1 avian-influenza virus, also known as bird flu.

    While illegal importation of poultry products is considered a bigger threat, officialswant to see whether any migratory birds — which can travel long distances — are found carrying the virus.

    The virus has spread in Asia and Africa among domestic chickens and ducks, and was recently discovered in wild birds in Europe. Researchers so far haven’t found any cases of the deadly strain in North America in any bird — domestic or wild.

    During New Mexico’s hunting season last year, wildlife officers began mandatory checks for the virus in sandhill cranes that were killed by hunters on national wildlife refuges. This year, testing will expand to voluntary samplings of certain species of waterfowl killed on state-owned properties.

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    “We’ll be doing some additional testing on ducks from hunters who will be hunting our (state) refuges,” said Tim Mitchusson, migratory-bird specialist for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. “We want to get samples from around the state, but it’s not going to be mandatory outside what we already do.”

    In the 113 reported cases worldwide in which the virus infected and killed humans, all but a few unconfirmed transmissions of the disease were from the handling of domestic fowl. But scientists are concerned the virus could mutate into a form that can spread person-to-person, sparking a pandemic.

    Three species will be targeted for sampling in New Mexico because of their migration routes. Each year, some sandhill cranes migrate between New Mexico and Siberia, and some snow geese travel to and from Wrangell Island in Russia. Pintail ducks are circumpolar, meaning they travel around different regions of the Arctic Circle.
    Although most pintails remain along the West Coast, some make their way inland to New Mexico.

    Mitchusson said he would be surprised if the H5N1 virus turned up in one of the tests. He cited a recent test of birds that had migrated from Europe to Africa that did not turn up any evidence of the virus.

    “That would indicate that wild birds aren’t as big a problem as domestic-poultry transportation,” he said.

    If avian flu were to arrive in the United States, it’s more likely to come from illegally imported chicken feed or eggs than from a duck flying south for the winter, he said.
    Nevertheless, testing of sandhill cranes killed by hunters became mandatory on federal refuges last year and will expand to voluntary samplings on various state properties this hunting season.

    Hunters will be asked to participate during routine checks of their licenses and bag limits. During a test, which takes about 30 seconds for each bird, the officer will take a swab sample from the bird’s coacal area — its backside — because the virus replicates in the intestines. The samples will be sent for testing to the Veterinary Diagnostics Services lab at The University of New Mexico.

    “Testing was done on sandhill cranes last year and, of course, everything came back negative,” Mitchusson said. “But we did have lower participation — fewer hunters — than we typically have come out. ... When I contacted a couple of them, they said they were concerned about the bird-flu scare.”

    Mitchusson said the chance of contracting the virus from a wild bird is so remote that hunters needn’t worry.

    “They’ve got a greater probability of getting hit by a drunk driver than getting avian flu,” he said. “We’ve had this flu out there since 1996. In 10 years, only 113 people have died from it. I’d say, 113 hunters have died just traveling to their hunting spots and back in that amount of time.”

    Contact Wes Smalling at