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You, Too, Can Track Avian Flu and Other Wildlife Diseases

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Want to stay on top of wildlife disease developments throughout the world? USGS scientists Josh Dein and Hon Ip, and USGS web content manager Cris Marsh tell us how with some great Web tracking tools.




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Dave Hebert: So how can you keep track of Avian influenza and other wild life disease news stories and maybe contribute some of your own information? Well you're about to find out on this episode of CoreCast.


Dave: Hey there everybody and welcome to the USGS CoreCast. I'm Dave Hebert and today, we're talking about some great wildlife disease tracking tools that the USGS has created, not only for the wildlife disease research community but also for the public.

I am joined on the phone by Cris Marsh, the content manager for the Wildlife Disease Information Node, Joshua Dein, a wildlife veterinarian, and Hon Ip, a microbiologist, all from the USGS's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

Now Cris and Josh, we're gonna talk a bit about the Global Wildlife Disease News Digest as well as the associated map of that product and the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Early Detection Data System, or HEDDS. And then Hon is going to discuss the USGS avian influenza map, which keeps track of avian influenza occurrences throughout the world. Ok, Chris, Josh, Hon, thank you very much for joining me.

Josh Dein: You're welcome.

Cris Marsh: Glad to be here.

Hon Ip: Same here.

Dave: So Cris and Josh, could you talk a little bit about what inspired the creation of the Global Wildlife Disease News Digest and the map?

Cris: This is Cris Marsh, and what inspired the development of fthe Wildlife Disease News Digest was primarily that the wildlife health community is a very specialized community, and wildlife disease information is located in a lot of different areas. And we put that disease on a digest together, news digest together, to primarily bring all those information sources together into one spot to hopefully make life a little easier for the wildlife disease biologists.

Dave: That makes sense. So as a user, what can I find on the map? What is it capable of?

Cris: The disease digest and the disease map are companions, and when we put together the news digest, news stories that have something to do with disease detection or disease spread are then geocoded and put onto the map. So when you look at the map, you're looking at stories that have something to deal with disease spread.

Josh: This is Josh Dein. It's important to note that the news digest is a compilation of open source media points that Cris and her students put together that look at issues that are making news—just that. They're not data points per se, in that we're not actually looking at numbers of animals found or specific diagnoses of disease, although that's maybe included in the report. So when that's put on the map, what you're looking at is the things that we've been able to identify in the news media.

Dave: If people are interested in following this digest and keeping track of these wildlife disease stories on the map, how they get updated when the new story is added?

Cris: They have lots of different options on how to get notified when new content is put up on the digest, and those include an RSS feed. They can sign up to get an e-mail alert. We also have a widget, which folks, if they use a home page like iGoogle, they're able to add that  and then, if they prefer not to get the regular updates, we do have a weekly summary that they can also sign up for and so . . . of course, they can visit the digest any time they want.

Dave: Right. So how does a story get into the digest and on the map; can you walk me through the process?

Cris: Sure. So, every day we look at different sources that we have established. And then, well, mostly what we do is we have specific sources that we have created RSS feeds. So we have a feed reader, and we can quickly look through the headlines. And then we also use news sources such as ProMed and USAHA, which is for domestic animal heath, to try to bring in human health and domestic animal health that is related to wildlife health.

And then after we go through and pick out all the articles, then it's pretty much just putting it onto the digest and then through there, we choose the ones, as I had mentioned before, that have something to do with disease detection or disease spread. And we geocode those, so those items actually get cataloged into our database, and that's how they end up on the map.

Dave: And now, do you have any upgrades or additions plan?

Cris: We do. Right now what people are able to see are only the last 45 days of stories, and we're looking to change that so that people can go back and browse stories all the way back to when we first started the news digest to 2005—December 2005.

And the other big update that we're planning is right now you can query the map but you really can only choose one parameter to look at. You know, you can either decide to look at all of the disease articles related to deer or you can only do all the articles that are related to chronic wasting disease, but you can't combine those two searches. We're looking to allow people to build a query where they can choose a disease, a species, a location, a time frame.

Dave: Great. Ok, now we've talked about the Wildlife Disease News Digest, which gives people sort of an overview of all wildlife disease news stories gathered from throughout the world. Let's talk specifically about avian influenza, and I have particular questions about the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Early Detection System or . . . I'm sorry, Early Detection Data System, or HEDDS, which I'll be using henceforth. This map displays birds that have been tested in the United States for avian influenza, is that correct?

Josh: Yes. This is in contrast to the news digest map; this is actually a data map. This actually shows you information about where animals have been tested for avian influenza.

Dave: Okay, what have we found in the U.S. in regards to avian flu?

Josh: In regards to avian flu, we have certainly not found any of the highly pathogenic strains. We've found other strains of influenza viruses, but they have been in the population for years and years and years and really cause not much of a problem. What also . . . the data that we have up there now just goes back to April, so the sort of testing season is still early if you look at the previous years by changing tabs, you'll see that there are, you know, thousands of samples that have been tested in previous years.

Dave: Right. And the testing season starts in April of this year and goes until April of next year, is that correct . . . or through the end of March?

Josh: Right.

Dave: Okay, thank you. And how often is that map updated?

Josh: It's usually updated on a weekly basis, based on information that's coming from Department of Interior, Department of Agriculture, and other collaborators for the project.

Dave: Okay. What do we mean when we say, when we say highly pathogenic? How that is that related to whether or not a human being could contract avian influenza?

Hon: This is Hon Ip. The highly pathogenic avian influenza really is a functional definition for the people who work on domestic poultry and really just speaks to the effect of the virus in primarily chickens. So there's well known highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses that have devastated the chicken flock and yet have next to no effect on attending veterinarians or people who work on the farm.

Dave: Okay.

Hon: The difference with the one that we're very interested in—primarily what the map and the whole project is geared toward—is the surveillance for the H5N1 strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza.

Dave: Right.

Hon: And for that one, that's been known to have fairly serious effects on the limited number of human cases that have been found. And so for that particular virus, it can cause a serious disease and illness in wild birds, domestic poultry, and in people.

Dave: Ok. Now Hon, I'm glad you brought up the avian influenza project because I want to ask you some questions about another map that we have which tracks avian influenza throughout the world, is that correct?

Hon: That's right, and we created this map in response to . . . in 2005, when it seemed there was a rapid spread and geographical extension of H5N1 into a large and broader area in the world.

And so in order to . . . for somebody who maybe is not following the news closely, it's a quick way for them to sort of go into and find out where are current outbreaks happening, where they are in the world, what kind of species is being affected.

Dave: Okay. And how often is that map updated?

Hon: That map is updated as outbreaks occur. In some years during the summer, that's been fairly low, and it has been updated maybe once or twice a week only. And then during the fall or winter months, which is prime, like, influenza spread, as we all know it's updated as needed, as much as on a daily basis.

Dave: Okay. And how is that data gathered?

Hon: I get a bunch of feeds from various sources like W.H.O., F.A.O., O.I.E., the usual news media, and then a variety of infectious disease news feeds. And then that's manually looked through.

Currently with any one outbreak, there's multiple stories that one could sort of like use a link to, and what we do is sort of pick one link we see as providing the most information, maybe a little bit more of a persistent link, and we sort of use a single news story as a pin to hang the whole host story on. Hopefully that at least triggers, if somebody is interested, as a beginning source of information that they can then go and dig up and read the rest of the other news stories on that emerging outbreak

Dave: Now, I have a question about all of these tools. Can citizens—say the veterinarian community—can they contribute to these maps? To the digest?

Josh: Well, they can't contribute directly in regards to putting a dot on the map, so to speak, but if they are aware of an outbreak or a news story that they want to have on the map or on the news digest, they can easily send an e-mail to, and then Cris will put that into the hopper for something to put onto the map.

Cris: And I would add, we always appreciate that kind of feedback from the wildlife community or other members that use the digest. The digest was, you know, created for wildlife disease specialist, but also hopefully it will provide information for people that are just interested in the topic also from the public to maybe domestic animal veterinarians to maybe public health officials.

Dave: Great. And so have you had instances where someone has perhaps discovered something and has notified you of it, and that's become an item on the digest or on one of these maps?

Cris: Actually, yes. Just on Friday, someone sent me that C.W.D. was located in a new province in Canada and sent it down to me, and it will be showing up in the digest today.

Dave: CWD: That's Chronic Wasting Disease?

Cris: Chronic Wasting Disease, yes, sorry.

Dave: Great, well so this can be a very interactive process for the public.

Cris: Yes and we encourage it. We can use all the help we can get, more eyes will be looking at the news.

Dave: Right, right, right. Well those are all of my questions. I'd like to thank all of you very much for your time. This was very informative, and these are some excellent tools.

Josh: Thanks for your interest in speaking with us.

Cris: Yes.

Dave: And thanks to all of you for listening. I hope you're compelled to check out these map tools. If you're interested at all in wildlife disease, I think you'll find them very useful.

For links to all the tools we've mentioned as well as some other resources, and there are quite a few, follow the transcript/links link at the entry for this episode of CoreCast at

CoreCast is a product of the US Geological Survey, Department of the Interior. Until next time, I'm Dave Hebert. Thank you so much for listening, and have a great day.


Music credit: 

"supa dupa fly drums" by professorcompressor

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