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Alaskan hunters aid scientists' search for bird flu

Scores of fowl will be examined

BARROW, Alaska -- Nearly 350 miles above the Arctic Circle, a traditional Eskimo feast to celebrate a successful whale hunt is in the making. On the table, chopped-up chunks of wild fowl are ready for the pot -- all except for a lovely king eider duck.

Before this duck is plucked and cooked, a government scientist will swab it to take a sample for bird flu testing.

Scientists have been posted in Barrow -- the nation's northernmost city, set in a treeless expanse of tundra on the edge of the ice-bound Arctic Ocean -- to look for early warning signs that migratory birds are bringing the deadly virus to North America.

No one knows when or if H5N1 avian influenza will arrive on US shores, but if it does come by wild bird, specialists want to know early on, before it can devastate the poultry supply, or worse.

The virus has led to the death or slaughter of millions of birds in Asia, Europe, and Africa and killed more than 128 people who had close contract with sick birds. The bigger fear is that the virus could mutate into a form that could pass easily from human to human, sparking a pandemic.

But as Corey Rossi, district supervisor for the US Department of Agriculture's wildlife services in Alaska, prepares to take a fecal sample from the duck with a swab, he relays the same message he has been giving since he arrived in Barrow a week earlier.

``I don't think we're going to find anything, but we're looking just to make sure," he said. He tucks the cotton swab in a sterile vial to be sent on to a government lab, while Laura Paktotak and her cousin pluck, chop, and deliver the duck to the pot.

The testing is part of an effort to sample between 75,000 and 100,000 live and hunter-killed birds across the nation, of which 19,000 are to come from various points in Alaska.

Barrow, population 4,800, is a place where a sharp wind whips the grit from the dirt roads and snow flurries fly in June. Because it is a crossroads for birds migrating from Asia to the Lower 48 states, Barrow is on the front lines of the early-detection plan -- a fact that caused some consternation at first among people who live in the region and depend on wild fowl for food.

A public information campaign sought to ease those fears by telling hunters to cook game birds thoroughly and to use rubber gloves and exercise care when handling and cleaning their catch.

Frances Leavitt, a 41-year-old Barrow housewife, said she would never give up the foods she grew up eating. Hunting is a vital source of food in a community where a nice steak at the grocery store can go for $35 and milk is $7.50 a gallon.

Leavitt said that after the initial concerns about bird flu ebbed, the subject became a joke among the hunters in her family. ``They would say to each other, `Are you going to go bird flu hunting now?' " she said.

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