State of Hawaii

Isles ready battle plan
for West Nile virus

By Diana Leone

West Nile virus could finish off dwindling populations of the state's 29 endangered species of birds, wildlife biologists warn.

"We think it's got the potential to decimate our native birds," said Paul Conry, state wildlife program manager.

Alarm bells went off for some in Hawaii after a California woman showed symptoms of the disease last week.

Jeff Burgett, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist, said his worry level is "10-plus" on a scale of one to 10.

"It can't get any more alarming," he said.

Conry and others said yesterday the state can't rely on the 2,500-mile-wide "moat" of the Pacific.

That's why state and federal agriculture, wildlife, postal and health officials hope to form a battle plan, including a possible temporary ban on importing birds, soon for keeping West Nile virus from sneaking into the state by plane or boat.

The West Nile virus, first detected in this country in New York in 1999, has spread to 41 states.

The virus is primarily a wild bird disease, carried by mosquitoes, but can also affect horses and humans.

Most people and horses infected with the virus have either no symptoms or mild symptoms; however, it can be fatal.

The state Department of Heath has ordered equipment to detect the virus in people, said Dr. Paul Effler, state epidemiologist.

"In general, we're in favor of things that would limit West Nile virus' entrance into Hawaii," Effler said.

State veterinarian James Foppoli issued an advisory Aug. 29, asking horse owners to be alert for symptoms of the disease.

Meanwhile, state House Speaker Calvin Say asked Hawaii's congressional delegation for help in an Aug. 19 letter.

Say suggested that:

>> Hawaii-bound planes be sprayed with low-risk pesticides.
>> Birds bound for Hawaii be quarantined a week before shipment.
>> The U.S. Postal Service stop allowing birds to be mailed.
>> Information about the virus be provided to the public.

"I'd rather be much more precautionary," Say said, noting that "the governor has some powers right now to stop importation or implement quarantine."

Randal T. Bartlett, chairman of the Maui Invasive Species Committee, recently e-mailed state and Maui County officials, asking that the state Department of Agriculture implement an emergency 180-day ban on importing birds.

A short-term ban on importing birds would allow scientists to gather more information and formulate a long-term response, said David Cameron Duffy, who leads a cooperative natural resources project among the University of Hawaii, U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service.

"Avian malaria has exterminated a dozen or more native bird species" in Hawaii, Duffy noted. "We don't need another as bad or worse."

Chickens and ducks are considered extremely unlikely to carry the virus, so they likely would not be affected by either quarantine or import ban, scientists said.

"It seems to me that West Nile virus is one of the best known and wide-ranging 'invasive pests' that Hawaii will face in this decade, if not this century," said Claudia Hamblin-Katnik of the Secretariat for Conservation Biology.

"It is a double threat in that it has major consequences for both human health and the health, indeed continued existence, of native birds. Hawaii cannot sit on the fence with this one."

State Health Department

E-mail to City Desk


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