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Bird Flu watchers track its spread with satellite-linked swans

Swans fitted with the same global positioning system satellite transmitters used to navigate cars may help scientists better understand the role wild birds play in the spread of avian influenza. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said its scientists are teaming with other agencies including the US Geological Survey to track the birds during their seasonal migration across Asia and Europe. The study will alert governments to potential threats from birds carrying diseases, such as the H5N1 avian flu strain, which reached 38 countries this year. The virus is known to have infected 241 people in 10 countries, killing 141, since 2003. It could kill millions if it changes into a pandemic form. “We are working to understand the role wild birds may play in the spread of H5N1,” Scott Newman, the FAO's international wildlife coordinator for avian flu, said in a statement on the agency's Web site. “Although poultry and bird trade are probably the primary routes of movement, migratory birds are likely involved in some areas.”

The project, which is funded by the US Agency for International Development, also involves the Wildlife Conservation Society and Mongolian Academy of Sciences. Whooper swans captured by biologists last month in Mongolia, near the borders of Russia and China, have been targeted in the study. Wild birds flock to the northern regions of those countries, as well as Siberia, to breed during the Northern Hemisphere summer. Ten of the 8-kilogram (18-pound) swans were fitted with backpacks weighing 70 grams and made of Teflon ribbon that deteriorates and falls off of the birds within a few years, the FAO said. The location of the swans is updated twice-weekly and can be accessed using Google Inc.'s Earth mapping software. “When we find infected birds, we need to know where they are going,” William Karesh, coordinator of the surveillance project, said in the statement. “We will not be able to fully understand their role in this disease unless we better understand their movements.” (Bloomberg)