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Migration Patterns Can Help Track Disease

Data on migrations may help predict where a disease strikes next

Among the data tracked in the U.S. Health and Human Services "command center," where top federal officials try to stay on top of any emerging health crisis, is the migration patterns of birds. From West Nile virus to the avian flu, policy makers have learned to keep a close eye on the sky, watching for the spread of disease.

One tool for tracking bird migrations is the Ornis (Ornithological Information System) Web site developed at the University of Kansas with a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The site is used to collect data from 33 sources, including data about bird specimens from natural-history museums, migration observations from bird-watching groups, and information from other organizations for more than 10,000 bird species, says Townsend Peterson, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas and curator of ornithology at the university's Natural History Museum.

Migrating birds like these wild swans in Mongolia could spread the flu virus, health experts warn.

Migrating birds like these wild swans in Mongolia could spread the flu virus, health experts warn.

Photo by Adrian Bradshaw/EPA
The site runs on Distributed Generic Information Retrieval, or DiGIR, a Web-services- based, open-source protocol that enables common access to data on biological collections across multiple institutions. This allows researchers to share biodiversity data, from anywhere via the Web.

What hasn't happened is combining that migration data with data about bird specimens testing positive for avian flu. The Department of the Interior is setting up sampling sites in the United States to collect and test bird specimens. If that data could be added to the Ornis system, it may let researchers use the system to predict, if birds are found in the United States with avian flu, in what regions infected birds would be likely to show up next, Peterson says.

In the United Kingdom, officials are taking a somewhat lower-tech means to spotting airborne signs of the virus' arrival. Since bird watching is a popular hobby, they've publicized a phone number that people can call if they notice an unusually high number of dead birds in an area.

Return to main story, Bird-Flu Crisis Spotlights Weak Monitoring System

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