Testing of dead birds scaled back
By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer
Got a dead bird? Unless it's a native bird or a large group of birds, don't call the state. The state last month discontinued testing of dead birds that had been done under a program aimed at early detection of the West Nile virus and potential avian influenza.
The program, which included a www.gotdeadbird.org Web site and a 211 hotline, encouraged the public to notify the state of dead birds, which would then be picked up for testing. The $350,000-a-year program paid for testing of dead birds and mosquito pools for the diseases.
Neither West Nile virus nor avian influenza (bird flu) is known to be present in Hawai'i. However, the concern is that either could arrive in the islands via migrating birds or infected mosquitoes brought in on planes or ships. Early detection of the arrival of either is considered key to response plans to protect native species and human life.
The decision to eliminate the program was a result of the state's budget crunch and a decrease in concern about West Nile virus because of lower illness and fatality rates.
The program was run primarily by the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Department of Health.
"Maybe two or three years ago we were looking at a possibility of (West Nile virus) coming to Hawai'i, but since that time, with all the monitoring and testing, there hasn't been a single positive," said DOH spokeswoman Janice Okubo.
Last year, 663 people in the United States were sickened by the West Nile virus. Of those, 30 died, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's down from 4,269 cases and 177 deaths nationwide in 2006.
Money that otherwise would have been spent on dead bird testing in Hawai'i is being spent to help prevent the layoff of state agriculture inspectors.
Hawai'i isn't the only state to discontinue tests on dead birds. However, states typically stop the testing only after the virus has been established in an area, according to the CDC.
The state still conducts periodic tests for avian flu in live birds, Okubo said. In addition, there is limited funding available to test dead birds, but only if they're native species or are found in a cluster of 10 or more dead birds.
"We do have the capacity to gear up for it if we see a rise or legitimate threat," Okubo said. "It's just that we're not doing it regularly and we're not doing collections of dead birds."