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Threat from above

Medicine | Officials in Hawaii begin preparing for outbreak of bird flu

Issue: "History speaks," April 1, 2006

Members of the president's cabinet know where, how, and from whom H5N1 bird flu is most likely to enter the United States. The question now is when.

On March 20, outgoing Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt announced a new plan to scour migratory bird populations for signs of the strain of avian influenza that is sweeping across the Eastern Hemisphere. Foreign governments have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of poultry in an attempt to contain the virus, which experts fear will mutate into a strain that easily infects humans.

So far, just over 180 humans are known to have contracted H5N1 since 2003. They most likely caught it from close contact with infected poultry, according to the World Health Organization. About 55 percent of them died.

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"It is increasingly likely that we will detect a highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian flu in birds within U.S. borders, possibly as early as this year," Ms. Norton said.

Because Alaska is a crossroads for Pacific, Asian, and North American migratory birds, H5N1 will probably appear there first. From there, birds like the lesser golden plover will make a straight shot for Hawaii, where native wild chickens, endangered species, and international tourists could collide with the virus. Already, Hawaiian officials are preparing their state to be one of the first, and hardest, hit.

Hawaii has a large, uncontrolled population of feral chickens that would make the spread of bird flu more difficult to control. The flu would pose a major threat to Hawaii's unique species of waterfowl, including the Laysan duck and the state bird, the nene. In total, the state is home to 31 species of endangered birds, most of which are found nowhere else in the world.

H5N1 also might hurt the state's economy if tourists decide to stay away, despite the low risk of human infection from birds. And the tourists themselves pose a threat as they travel in from infected countries. In November, the state health department started a flu surveillance program that identifies sick airline passengers and screens them before they leave the Honolulu airport. Hawaii is the first state to institute such a measure.

Making the rounds

The curtain closed last week on the South Korean drama of renowned faker Hwang Woo-Suk, who admitted to fabricating the results of embryo cloning and stem-cell experiments. Seoul National University officially fired him on March 20, days after the government revoked his stem-cell research license. The university's action decreases the severance pay of Mr. Hwang, who resigned in November, and bars him from government-funded employment for five years.

Medications for high blood pressure might reduce the risk of Alzheimer's Disease, scientists say. Potassium-sparing diuretics, such as the drugs Aldactone, Dyrenium, and Midamor, were associated with a 70 percent reduced chance of Alzheimer's in a study of people age 65 and older. The researchers said further study is needed, but their findings seem to confirm research showing high blood pressure can increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease. The study was published on the website of the Archives of Neurology.

A team of researchers in the United Kingdom published further proof last week for its theory that women with asymmetrical breasts have a greater risk of breast cancer. Almost all women have a slight difference between the sizes of their breasts. The study appears to prove that the greater that difference, the greater the likelihood of developing breast cancer. The study's authors suggest using mammograms not just as a screening tool for tumors, but also as a way to measure breast asymmetry and assess a woman's risk of breast cancer. The study was published in the journal Breast Cancer Research.

Lynde Langdon
Lynde Langdon

Lynde lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and two daughters. She holds degrees from the University of Missouri in journalism, Russian, and business administration. She is in a long-term, committed relationship with the Lutheran church. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

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