TA University expert develops early-warning system for bird flu

Satellite bird-tracking technology may follow migratory patterns of infected birds between Europe and Africa.

bird flu pigeons 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
bird flu pigeons 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
In a nondescript corner of an anonymous administration building on the campus of Tel Aviv University, Yossi Leshem has been using the latest satellite technology to track the movements of a couple code-named Princess and Jonas. For nearly a year, Israeli experts were able to track the pair as they left their adopted home in Germany and set out on their travels. Jonas traversed Europe to southern Spain, where he spent several months before rejoining his partner back in Germany. Princess journeyed east across Turkey and Lebanon, passing through Israel, the Palestinian territories and Egypt before making a long stopover in Sudan. She then continued on to South Africa, returning to rendezvous with Jonas in Germany 235 days later. For more than five years, Leshem has been tracking the travels of Princess and Jonas and dozens like them. He worries that their apparently benign wanderings could inflict death and devastation across the world, at a cost of untold numbers of human lives. Princess and Jonas are white storks, the long-legged waterfowl that nest in Europe during the summer and migrate south for the winter. Princess is among an estimated half a billion fowl that fly over Israel twice a year on their way to and from their nesting grounds. Until now, the spectacular arrival of vast flocks of birds in the Hula Valley in northern Israel had been regarded as a nuisance for the farmers whose seed they feed on - and a beautiful twice-yearly attraction for thousands of bird-watchers from around the world who flock to Israel to see the storks, pelicans, vultures, even eagles. But with outbreaks of deadly avian flu in East and Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and closer countries such as Turkey and Egypt, Leshem says the fascinating journeys of birds like Princess and Jonas could be the key to understanding how avian flu might spread around the globe. Every autumn, birds from Northern Europe and Northeast Asia fly south, soaring past the eastern Mediterranean region before fanning out across Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, then fly the same route in reverse every spring. The resulting crush creates an avian air-traffic jam above Israel twice a year. "Birds infected with avian flu originating in the Far East are funneled through the Israeli 'bottleneck' as the birds migrate, and the virus can be passed through the air," said Leshem, an air force colonel. "If a flock of migrating geese land near a chicken farm, the virus can spread like fire." "The biggest threat is a mutation of the virus and its transfer to people," said Leshem. "We know that birds are disease carriers. It could be a worldwide disaster." To date, the H5N1 flu virus has killed 95 people out of 175 confirmed human cases worldwide. Those deaths have occurred in a swath from China to Turkey, according to the World Health Organization. Perched on a hillside near the Latrun junction, about 800 feet above sea level in the foothills of the West Bank, Gen. Leonid Dinevich recalls the days when he commanded 40 Soviet air bases, 500 warplanes and silos containing thousands of ballistic missiles. Back then, he occupied a spacious office at the top of a 14-story tower at a base in Kishinev in what is now Moldova. Today, Dinevich, 64, spends nine hours a day in an MMR-5 radar station, a camouflaged hut on wheels with a 15-foot antenna circling slowly in a huge sphere mounted on the roof. The cramped interior is alive with blinking lights, computer screens and buzzing equipment. "Once a general, always a general," said Dinevich. "Today I am the general of millions of birds, defending against the new enemy of avian flu." Dinevich and Leshem established the Latrun radar to track migration patterns and warn aircraft of birds in their flight path to avoid collisions. Now they hope that the data collected at Latrun will be developed into an early-warning system to help halt the spread of disease. "We want to create a network with radar stations here in Israel, in Russia, in Bulgaria, in Turkey, in Jordan - and many more," said Dinevich. "We have to unify them into a single system. On the screen you can see millions of birds on their way to Turkey. We can warn our friends in Turkey that tomorrow the birds will reach there, and they must cover up their poultry and other domestic birds. Then Turkey needs to warn Russia, and so on." In keeping with the international nature of the threat, the Israeli experts have been working closely with regional colleagues. Imad Atrash, director of the Palestine Wildlife Society, said the avian flu threat has brought together Israeli and Palestinian officials at a time when cooperation between the two governments on many other issues has come almost to a standstill. "There is full cooperation," said Atrash. "We are all aware that the disease will make no distinction between Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, Muslim or Jew. We all face the same problem. It will affect everyone. Disease knows no boundaries." (Israel21c/www.israel21c.org)