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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 9, 2006

Migratory kolea face avian flu challenge

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

Hawai'i's kolea are all dressed up in their racing stripes and ready to go. By the time you read this, they will probably have started their return to Alaska. There, they may come into contact with other migratory birds that have bird flu. According to an expert on the immune system, "this year will be critical for the future of (Hawai'i's) kolea."

Our expert is Dr. Edward W. Voss, who has spent 35 years doing basic research on the immune system on both the antibody and cellular levels. He is now professor emeritus from the University of Illinois and lives in Hawai'i. Pay attention to what he wrote for this column:

"Upon their arrival in Alaska the kolea will perhaps be exposed to a variety of infected migratory birds from different continents. This encounter will be significant because it appears that the intercontinental ... spread of bird flu can be attributed largely to migratory bird flight patterns. My concerns are that the kolea may be ill-prepared for this possible encounter.

"These concerns are based on a couple of factors. First, the kolea lose approximately 50 percent of their body weight during the marathon flight and therefore arrive in a weakened and psychologically stressed state. The weakened nutritional and stressed states both directly impact the immune system of the kolea."

Voss explained that the immune system is integrated with the circulatory and nervous systems. Stress in either system, or both, impairs the immune responses.

That's not all. Voss said he has found that the avian antibody response against infection is not as effective as the response of humans. What he worries about: "If the kolea become infected late in their Alaskan stay, the return trip ... may prove too much for many of the kolea."

Voss suggested that if the kolea count in Hawai'i next year drops significantly, "some of the concerns expressed here may have 'played out' as described."

On the other hand, if kolea return in usual or greater numbers, it may mean that kolea "were not excessively exposed" in Alaska, perhaps because the kolea in Alaska are isolated from other birds, or because kolea may possess natural immunity to bird flu.

On the bright side, Voss said it's unlikely that "there will be significant (koleato-human) transmission" if kolea return from Alaska with bird flu. He added that such transmission has occurred when there has been "daily interaction between humans and highly domesticated domestic flocks."

So there isn't much chance you'll catch bird flu from kolea who won't let you get close to them. In any event, we'll have to wait until August to find out if our Hawai'i kolea have fallen victim to bird flu in Alaska.

Reach Bob Krauss at 525-8073.