• From: "BIANCHI, John" <JBIANCHI@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To:
  • Date: Tue, 11 Feb 2003 17:09:27 -0500

Contact: John Bianchi
Vicki Moeser 
(202) 357-2627 ext. 111


U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Geological Survey Also Serve as

Ivyland, PA, Monday, February 10, 2003 - In response to the alarming spread
of West Nile virus in North America and its potential for taking a severe
toll on bird and wildlife populations, the Smithsonian Environmental
Research Center (SERC) and the National Audubon Society hosted a summit Feb.
5-6 for about 100 scientists at SERC's Edgewater, Md., facility.

The two-day workshop, titled "Impacts of West Nile Virus on Wildlife
Health," was co-chaired by Peter Marra of SERC and Robert McLean of the
National Wildlife Research Center of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The summit, which was also co-sponsored by the USDA and U.S. Geological
Survey, was attended by scientists from many different disciplines.  These
scientists outlined a series of steps that need to be taken to understand
West Nile Virus and its effects on people and wildlife.

"West Nile virus is one of the most serious invasive pathogens to enter this
country in the past century," says Marra, an animal ecologist at SERC.
"This meeting was the first of its kind coordinating government agencies,
academic institutions, non-profits, and others to think about West Nile
virus and other emerging diseases as threats to wildlife populations.  We
were able to bring together researchers and scientists to prioritize and
coordinate research efforts, and to work to standardize methodologies to
determine the effects of this virus on wildlife."

Scientists discussed, with some urgency, the threat West Nile poses to our
native bird populations.  "West Nile has infected more than 100 bird
species, and has killed countless numbers of birds and other wildlife," says
Audubon Senior Vice President of Science Frank Gill. "The virus adds yet
another life-threatening challenge to the existence of North American birds
at a time when they are under severe stress from other problems.  If we are
to protect our great natural heritage, then we must first learn all that we
can about West Nile Virus.  Last week's meeting was a big step forward."

West Nile virus potentially threatens  many endangered species, including
scrub jays, whooping cranes, condors, prairie chickens and red-cockaded
woodpeckers, to name a few.

West Nile virus, endemic to Africa, Eastern Europe, Western Asia and the
Middle East, but not the Western Hemisphere, hit New York in 1999 and spread
at an alarming rate both geographically and regarding the number of humans
and animals affected.  The disease is most commonly transmitted through the
bites of infected mosquitoes, although host-to-host (i.e. human to human,
bird to bird) transmission has now been confirmed.

Understandably, much of the focus on West Nile has been on its human impact.
But the virus has had a more detrimental effect on bird and animal
populations, according to researchers.  Wild bird mortality has aided public
health agencies in tracking the path of the West Nile pathogen and continues
to provide an early warning system for the emergence of the virus in new

The scientists gathered at SERC-including ornithologists, virologists,
epidemiologists, entomologists, and others-convened to prioritize and
coordinate research to study and combat the impacts of the virus on wildlife
populations, especially those that are threatened or endangered, prior to
the next transmission season-spring through autumn. Participants represented
both public and private organizations; a full list of the organizations
involved is attached.

The group set several research priorities, including the need to determine:
how the virus spreads geographically, how it is transmitted from host to
host, how the virus overwinters, how to assess its impact on birds and
wildlife, and how we might intervene successfully.

Because it is difficult to predict where West Nile will show up next, it is
difficult to plan intervention.  "There also needs to be more research on
understanding the complexity of the disease and how the pathogen works,"
Marra adds.  "Until we understand the basic transmission cycle, there's
little we can do to stop it.  There's still a lot to learn; there's so much
we don't know."

The extent and impact on wildlife health is difficult to measure and
quantify, says Robert McLean of the National Wildlife Research Center.
Hundreds of thousands of birds, mammals and reptiles throughout the United
States have died.  "West Nile virus appears to be indiscriminate in how it
affects groups of organisms," McLean says, "and it is very efficient in what
it does."

"We know that some local bird populations have been affected by West Nile
Virus," said Christopher Brand, a wildlife disease scientist for the U.S.
Geological Survey. "But on a regional or continent-wide basis, we don't know
what the long-term ramifications are, especially to threatened or endangered
species, where even small geographic-scale disease outbreaks could be

West Nile virus has been found in Canada, Mexico, and in all but four of the
continental United States.  The concern is that it will eventually spread to
Hawaii, the Caribbean and Central America where wildlife is already
threatened from a host of other effects.

Marra says the scientists will continue to cooperate and collaborate on the
above points of action and will meet again in 18 months to reassess the

For workshop information:

Audubon is dedicated to protecting birds and other wildlife and the habitat
that supports them.  Our national network of community-based nature centers
and chapters, scientific and educational programs, and advocacy on behalf of
areas sustaining important bird populations, engage millions of people of
all ages and backgrounds in positive conservation experiences.

#   #   #

Organizations Sending Representatives

American Bird Conservancy
Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Heath Centre
Canadian Wildlife Service
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Colorado State University
Consortium for Conservation Medicine
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Department of the Interior
Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory
Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
Harvard School of Public Health
Illinois Natural History Survey
Johns Hopkins School of Public Health
Maryland DNR
National Park Service
National Science Foundation
New Mexico State University
NY State Department of Health
Oberlin College
Ornitholopgical Society of North America
Oxford University
Princeton University
Rutgers University
Science Magazine
Smithsonian - National Zoo
Smithsonian Conservation Research Center
Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Southeast Coop Disease Study - UGA
State University pf New York, Binghamton
U.S. Army
U.S. Department of Agriculture
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
U.S. Geological Survey
University of California, Davis
University of Florida
University of Illinois
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
University of Kansas
University of Minnesota Raptor Center
University of Oklahoma
University of Southern Mississippi
University of Texas, Galveston
Wildlife Center of Virginia
Wildlife Conservation Society/Bronx Zoo
Wildlife Information Network
Wildlife Trust

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