Combating the spread of bird flu requires researchers to first know where the next outbreak could start and also how the flu virus is transmitted from bird to bird, across different species and even sometimes from birds to humans.
Every strain of influenza can be traced back to aquatic birds, even the pesky seasonal flu bug that comes around every winter.
Researchers from St. Jude Children’s Hospital are working to stay ahead of the flu by collecting fecal samples from migrating seabirds who make a pitstop in Delaware Bay to eat freshly hatched horseshoe crab eggs every spring.
The area is particularly attractive to researchers because of how much data the researchers can collect on influenza from the samples.
Thousands of birds flock to this beach including seagulls and birds that stick to the shores.
To obtain the samples, the researchers work very carefully to avoid the horseshoe crab nests and the qualifications for a good sample are very specific.
The team look for droppings specifically from the calico-patterned ruddy turnstone.
“We have trained our eyes for this, that’s for sure,” said Pamela McKenzie told the Associated Press.
The fecal material must be the right size and fresh because if its too dry testing won’t be accurate.
Flu strains carried from birds are a threat to domesticated chickens and turkeys which can then transfer to humans.
The researchers also test live poultry markets in Bangladesh and wild birds in China and Canada.
It’s important that the researchers continually test and collect data so the Delaware Beach operation takes place every year.
The flu virus is always changing which can hinder efforts to make vaccines.
“It only has to happen once,” Richard Webby, who directs St. Jude’s Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance, told the AP. “The right virus comes and gets into the right population which happens to fly over the right farm of turkeys which happens at the right time of year where the right farmer picks up the wrong bird – and we’re in trouble.”
Webby and his colleagues’ work is extremely valuable to our understanding of influenza, and data from St. Judes Influenza Research program could help save lives and prevent further outbreaks from occurring down the line.