Saturday, December 10, 2005

News/Editorial Poultry producers key to stopping avian flu?s spread

Like storm clouds gathering on the western horizon, reports of avian flu infecting humans in Asia and elsewhere have sent U.S. animal health experts to their computers trying to predict the next jump.

The highly pathogenic avian flu strain H5N1 has killed 60 people overseas after they caught the illness from domestic poultry. That in itself is of concern to all who work around poultry, but because the practices of Asian farmers are a far cry from those employed by western farmers the concern is diminished.

For example, in Asia live chickens and ducks are taken to outdoor markets to be sold. Those not sold are returned to the farm. Such practices present an unrivaled opportunity to spread disease among the poultry. In the case of H5N1, it also presents ample opportunity for those who work with poultry to become infected. Most of the people who have died worked with poultry.

But it?s the next potential step that has health officials worldwide most worried. A virus mutates and mutation can change how it is transmitted.

That means the potential exists for H5N1 to mutate so it can be transmitted from one human to another. If that happens, the general population will be at risk, not just those who come into contact with infected birds.

Another concern is the role migratory birds play in spreading the virus. That a migrating duck can contract avian flu in Asia and, potentially, spread it to domestic poultry in the United States or elsewhere is a concern all within the poultry industry should share.

In that context, health officials have been to plotting a strategy for heading off avian flu. When a flu appears, poultry are killed to prevent its spread. In Asia, millions of birds have been eradicated in recent months in an effort to stop the flu.

As recently as this fall, a less pathogenic flu was discovered in two domestic ducks in Canada. Authorities there immediately took steps to prevent the spread of that virus, killing 58,000 ducks and geese on two British Columbia farms.

That immediate response did much to assure consumers and others that authorities are on top of the situation, just as they were in 2004, when they ordered 17 million birds slaughtered to stop the spread of another, less-serious form of avian flu.

California poultry producers have successfully faced their share of difficult tests in recent years, too. Exotic Newcastle disease was first found in a backyard poultry flock in Los Angeles County in October 2002. That in turn led to a large outbreak of the fast-spreading disease. In all, more than 3 million birds were euthanized and about $160 million was spent to eradicate the disease.

Around the world, agencies are assembling their battle plans should H5N1 make its jump from person to person. From tiny Whatcom County, Wash., to worldwide health organizations, authorities are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

One conclusion they quickly reach is they need to work closely with the poultry industry.

?We need to reach out more,? Washington State Veterinarian Leonard Eldridge said. ?Industry participation and surveillance needs to be included.?

For poultry producers, that is a statement of the obvious. They have the most at stake, and they are the most knowledgeable about poultry.

They should not only be in the loop, they should be most of the loop.

Poultry producers key to stopping avian flu?s spread

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