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Alaska villagers living in bird flu's flight path

What has brought the Eskimos sustenance for generations now may carry the deadly virus into North America

October 22, 2006|JIA-RUI CHONG | Times Staff Writer

Kipnuk, Alaska — THE 800 YUP'IK ESKIMOS in this wet and lonely village knew the situation was serious when government scientists began swooping in on bush planes.

Except for a few doctors that fly in each year to give villagers checkups, outsiders rarely visited this outpost of scattered gray plywood homes and prefab structures plopped in the middle of the tundra.

Soon, latex gloves appeared on store shelves and Wild West-style posters started popping up around town: "Wanted: Birds of the Delta." Researchers camped out in the town's tribal council offices, preparing for trips to nearby Kwigluk Island with vials, swabs, nets and needles.

They came bearing a warning: The wild birds that the Yup'ik have hunted for millenniums may be carrying the first traces of the deadly bird flu virus from Asia into North America.

"It's kind of scary, you know," said resident Ronnie Peter, 39. "That's like, our food, you know."

The H5N1 avian influenza emerged in China 10 years ago and has since spread into Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Though the virus mainly infects fowl, since 2003 it has sickened 256 people and killed 151 around the world.

Kipnuk lies at the crossroads of an invisible freeway system linking migratory birds that journey along the East Asia-Australia flyway with those from the Pacific Americas flyway.

Tens of millions of birds flock every year to this seemingly endless expanse of soggy land in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge to feast on insects, grasses, worms and mussels before heading back south in the winter to Asia, Australia and other parts of the Americas.

"If it's going to show up in wild birds, Alaska is the most likely place where it's going to happen," said Brian McCaffery, a federal wildlife biologist who was camped a few miles down the coast from Kipnuk collecting bar-tailed godwit droppings for testing.

Federal officials have identified 29 bird species that are most likely to carry the deadly virus from Asia, and they have enlisted local hunters to help provide birds for testing.

In the old days, the Yup'ik Eskimos felled the uqsuqaq, metraq and kanguq with bows and throw sticks tipped with sharpened walrus ivory.

Now, the men use 12-gauge shotguns and reach remote hunting spots in motorboats.

Little else has changed -- until now.

"Oh Lord, what are we going to eat? Store-bought food?" thought Steven Mann, who oversees tribal operations in town, when he first started receiving faxes on bird flu safety in the spring.

The nervousness has waned through the summer, said the 58-year-old ex-Army sergeant, but still, "We don't joke about what we eat here."

Mann's son, Danny, a lanky 27-year-old who used to work as a bilingual parent liaison for the school, took on the job of bird flu testing manager in Kipnuk for the tribal health agency, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. He gets $15 for every bird he samples.

At the tribal council offices, he was on the phone, checking in with hunters. "Got any birds?" he asked Peter, who goes hunting just about every day except Sunday.

"How many?" Danny Mann asked. "Can I come over and check them?"

Mann threw on a jacket, grabbed a blue Nike duffel bag and headed out. As a light drizzle enveloped the village, he strode across the boardwalks that lie across the marshiest parts of town. The hollow sound of his steps echoed in the still afternoon.

The residents of Kipnuk, which means "bend in the river" in Yup'ik, are a little bewildered that their speck of a village has been drawn into the battle against the bird flu virus.

No roads lead here. The closest Wal-Mart is nearly 500 miles away. The flatland that spreads out between the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers is so riddled with lakes and creeks that it looks like Swiss cheese from the air. The slate-gray Bering Sea is only a few miles away.

The coastal location is one reason health officials chose Kipnuk as one of 10 villages for testing. The other main reason is the vigor of its hunters.

Kipnuk villagers hunt intensely through the summer, stocking up on birds, which they usually roast into a crispy meal or boil into a soup made with onions, rice and macaroni. Peter keeps two freezers stuffed with various birds -- some plucked, some not.

Mann climbed up the steps to Peter's porch and dug into a pile of common eiders, pintail ducks, a shoveler and a Canada goose.

Mann snapped on a pair of surgical gloves and started filling out a form on the birds.

He peeled the paper packaging around a long swab and inserted it into an eider through its cloaca, a combination genital, intestinal and urinary tract. Mann put the swab, now covered in a greenish-white goop, into a vial.

As Peter's 4-year-old son, Quentin, danced around with a plastic light-saber, Mann repeated the procedure for the other birds.

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