Here’s another column drawn from one of the chapters of my new book Disease-Hunting Scientist (Enslow Publishers):
Every spring, an estimated six million birds arrive in Alaska to breed. Some spent the winter in Southeast Asia, home to a strain of avian influenza called H5N1.
Although swine flu is getting all the attention right now, bird flu hasn’t gone away: many scientists fear it could someday become more readily transmissible between humans, and produce a deadly global pandemic.
Even in its current form, it has already sickened 433 people worldwide, killing 262 of those. At the back of everyone’s mind is the 1918 pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people, many of them healthy young adults—a pandemic caused by a virus recently confirmed to have been a strain of bird flu.
The H5N1 virus hasn’t shown up in North America yet. But Alaska, where more than 140 other types of avian influenza already circulate in the bird population, is a prime candidate for where it will eventually appear. And that’s one reason Jonathan Runstadler, assistant professor of biology and wildlife at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology, has spent a great deal of time since 2005 swabbing the bottoms of birds.
The goal is both to learn more about how avian influenza survives and is transmitted among birds, and to keep an eye out for the arrival of H5N1.
Runstadler and his colleagues swab each bird’s cloaca (the opening through which both urine and feces are expelled) and in some cases also the bird’s trachea. Sometimes they also collect samples of blood and feathers for genetic analysis.
Rather than capture birds themselves, they work in conjunction with some of the many other bird studies going on in Alaska at any given time.
“For instance, I have been out to the Yukon flats area with a guy, Jim Sedinger, who works with Brant geese, studying the ecology of the goose in these nesting and breeding areas,” Runstadler says.
Sedinger’s team waits until the geese are molting, and thus mostly unable to fly, then herds them by the hundreds down long, thin bits of land, bordered on either side by streams, into temporary pens.
While Sedinger’s team bands the birds and collects data on their age and molt status, Runstadler and his colleagues collect their samples.
Another major site for their work is in the Alaskan interior, not far from Fairbanks, where the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game has a banding program, and a third is within the city itself, where the Alaska Bird Observatory samples songbirds.
Runstadler’s team also takes samples from the birds’ environment, mud and water in the summer and ice and frozen mud in the winter, “both to detect virus and then see if we can grow virus from those samples.”
Runstadler’s team is working with other biologists more and more to determine what effect the viruses have on the birds in the wild.
“In some of the areas that we study up to twenty percent of birds are infected with influenza virus,” he says.
The researchers are also trying to find out how important this reservoir of virus in wild birds is to the occasional outbreak of influenza in domestic birds—and vice versa. “Is there a movement back and forth? Who is to blame?”
“I take a lot of grief for being somebody who looks at the bottom end of birds,” Runstadler admits. But he enjoys the camping in the Alaskan wilderness and especially learning about the birds, “what they do, and what’s special about them.”
He admits he’s conscious of the risk of possibly contracting a disease from all the birds he handles. “The fact that there are viruses out there…that can potentially kill you is something that gives you second thoughts when you’re out sampling those birds,” he says, but notes, “we take the precautions that we feel are necessary.”
And the risk, he adds, is “really some of the motivation of it. Some of the work we do might lead to an understanding of these viruses that makes them less scary and dangerous on the whole.”
That would be good news for all of us, even those of us who have never seen a bird’s bottom.