WASHINGTON - The federal government last week encouraged businesses to develop plans for dealing with bird flu in the United States, as the prospect of avian influenza landing here appears likely.
"This is much more than a public health issue and it's not just an issue for those who have poultry flocks," said Michael Leavitt, U.S. secretary of health and human services. "People have to eat and therefore businesses need to ask themselves the question - how would we continue to operate, to serve our customers and the public in general, if 40% of our workforce couldn't go to work for two to four weeks. Any community that fails to prepare with the expectation that the federal government will at the last moment be able to come to the rescue will be tragically wrong."
Migratory birds are the most likely carrier of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus to the U.S. That strain, of concern in Asia, Europe and Africa, has killed 98 humans since 2003.
"It's becoming increasingly likely that we'll detect the H5N1 strain in wild birds within U.S. borders as early as this year," said Gale Norton, U.S. secretary of the interior, as she reviewed an expanded wild migratory bird testing program.
"There are species of migratory birds that spend the winter in Asia and then in the spring they travel to Alaska and nest there," Norton said. The virus will most likely be carried by wild birds traveling via the Pacific Island or Alaska flyways, she said.
"A detection of the H5N1 [highly pathogenic] virus in birds would not constitute a reason for panic," stressed Mike Johanns, U.S. secretary of agriculture. "Another important distinction is that detection of the strain in wild birds does not mean that commercial poultry is infected."
The expanded bird flu detection plan includes the investigation of disease-outbreak events in wild birds; expanded monitoring of live wild birds; monitoring of hunter-killed birds; testing of sentinel animals, such as backyard poultry flocks; and environmental sampling of water and bird feces.
Norton anticipates that 75,000-100,000 live and dead birds will be tested this year, and 50,000 samples of water or feces from high-risk waterfowl habitats across the U.S. will be collected. Since 1998, the USDA, in partnership with the University of Alaska, has tested more than 12,000 birds in Alaska and more than 4,000 birds in Atlantic flyways.
During that time many birds have tested positive for low pathogenic avian influenza, which is as common as the human flu. LPAI poses a minimal threat to birds and no significant health threat to humans. Still, the H5 and H7 strains of LPAI can mutate into highly pathogenic avian influenza. HPAI is frequently fatal to birds and lethal to about 50% of humans who've contracted the disease by close contact with infected birds.
Norton said she anticipates tests will indicate the presence of the H5N1 strain in 20-100 birds this year.
The government is counting on cooperation from the U.S. poultry industry to detect possible outbreaks in commercial flocks.
"It's a $29 billion industry and poultry producers are as eager as we are to protect its safety," Johanns said. "Producers know that they'll be compensated for any HPAI birds that we'd have to destroy. They'll call us at the first sign of the disease."
Most producers and processors participate in voluntary testing.
"Our poultry industry is very consolidated, unlike that of other countries where chickens are raised in yards and inside homes," Johanns said. "Our chickens, turkeys and eggs are raised in very controlled environments."