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Task force copes with anxieties over avian flu

About 80 anxious callers a week contact Cornell's Lab of Ornithology with questions about avian influenza and the possibility of the virus arriving in the United States via migratory birds.

A steady trickle of calls and e-mails comes from reporters seeking an expert to interview, from wild-bird feed industry people looking for information and even from the federal government, which has requested that Cornell play a bigger role in the latest effort to monitor birds and the virulent H5N1 virus.

Most of these calls are fielded by the task force on avian influenza, which the lab has created in an effort to provide accurate and up-to-date information on the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza.

"We can serve as a clearinghouse of information to communicate to the general public everything they should know about highly pathogenic avian flu and the conservation of birds with regard to this disease," said lab director John Fitzpatrick.

"We are seeing a lot of fear cropping up, even though the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza has not arrived in North America," said Janis Dickinson, the director of the lab's Citizen Science Program. "We feel an obligation to address these fears, which are exacerbated by sensationalized and misleading stories in the media."

The task force will ultimately include experts on conservation biology, bird migration and the ecology of disease transmission, as well as communication specialists who will translate the science and issues to the public. Also being hired is a person to track scientific literature and media reports in order to stay on top of new developments.

The lab takes part in or administers many citizen science projects, including The Birdhouse Network, Project FeederWatch and eBird, in which members of the general public help collect data on wild bird populations. These data are important for tracking bird species, and lab members are concerned that fear over avian flu could impact participation in projects where birds are handled or feeders are used.

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