Saturday, December 24, 2005

News - Pigs also at risk if deadly bird flu reaches U.S.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - If deadly bird flu spreads to the United States, the disease could have a sweeping impact on pig production because the animals are susceptible to the H5N1 disease, according to industry and veterinary experts.

The H5N1 strain of avian influenza is known to have killed more than 70 people. To stop the spread of the disease, some 150 million birds have been destroyed worldwide, mostly in Asia, The virus also has been found in Europe.

No cases of H5N1 have been discovered in humans, chickens, turkeys or migratory birds in the United States.

"Not only do poultry people need to look into increasing their biosecurity, so do the swine (farmers)," said John El-Attrache, a veterinary pathologist with Texas A&M University. "Bird flu can readily infect a swine species and for the most part, go from swine on into humans," he added.

Experts do not believe pigs played a role in spreading H5N1 throughout Asia and eastern Europe. But pigs do have receptors for both avian and mammalian viruses. Some fear pigs could act as a "mixing bowl" -- especially on farms where they coexist with humans and poultry -- creating a new virus that spreads from person to person.

Biosecurity efforts at most U.S. farms already include keeping pigs confined and separate from other animals. Human contact is limited and farm employees are encouraged to get annual flu shots.

A spokeswoman for Hormel Foods Corp., which buys hogs from some 1,500 farmers in the Midwest to make Spam and other meat products, said it has safeguards in place for many diseases including bird flu.

Hormel updated its business and crisis plans for all animal diseases after mad cow was found in the United States in December 2003.

Bird flu is "one of many things we're watching," said Julie Craven, a Hormel spokeswoman. "There is a lot of what could best be described as speculation between how the (H5N1) virus might travel, in between what species and what kind of timeline it's on."

The National Pork Board, which represents the industry and is responsible for the "Pork, the other white meat" slogan, said the bird flu situation in Asia and eastern Europe has sparked discussion among members.

"We have to make sure we're doing everything we can to keep it out of our herds and keep it from spreading to protect our species," said Liz Wagstrom, a veterinarian with the National Pork Board.

In addition to surveillance and routine swine vaccinations, Wagstrom said the industry must be prepared to alert farmers swiftly to impose stricter precautions, if needed.

Hogs and pigs have an annual flu season just like humans, poultry and other species.

The United States is the third largest pork producer in the world behind China and the European Union, according to U.S Agriculture Department figures. In its September hogs and pigs report, USDA said hog and pig inventory in the United States was 61.5 million head, up slightly from a year ago.

The USDA said it is not planning to require any new safety measures among pig farmers due to bird flu.

"We're aware that people worry about H5N1 in hogs... but any safeguarding now would be from the bird standpoint," said Jim Rogers, a spokesman with USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The Bush administration asked Congress in November for $91 million for the USDA as part of a broader request for $7.1 billion in emergency funding to prepare for a possible bird flu pandemic.

Global Coverage Article | Reuters.co.uk

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