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Alaskan Town Fears Second Deadly Bird Flu Visit

It's only a matter of time before the H5N1 bird flu virus reaches the United States, say health officials. In just one winter, the H5N1 bird flu virus has migrated from Asia to Europe and Africa.

Alaska's northwest coast, a major flyway for migrating birds, is considered a primary point of entry. The region has already played a major role in the effort to halt the disease.

In 1918, a pandemic, sparked by bird flu virus, swept through the tiny Alaskan coastal community of Brevig Mission. Tissue samples taken more than half a century ago from a mass grave there provided a map of that virus, which is helping researchers figure out how the current H5N1 virus works.

Brevig Mission's mass grave holds the remains of the 72 victims, and has been opened twice. In 1951, pathologist Johann Hultin convinced village elders to allow him to take tissue samples from bodies buried in permafrost. His lab attempts to map the virus were unsuccessful, but he returned in 1997 and was once again given permission to re-open the grave.

While other Arctic communities turned people away with armed guards, Brevig Mission took in the sick and orphaned during the pandemic. So many people died so quickly, village council member Rita Olanna says her grandfather told her even the sky seemed sad.

Today a real fear for this coastal community is the knowledge that wild birds can carry the H5N1 virus and that people can catch it just by handling the infected birds.

As winter moves on and the start of spring duck hunting gets closer, villagers are worried. Wild birds have been harvested for generations as a staple subsistence food. For remote communities like Brevig Mission, there is little choice.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lori Townsend