03/31/08 — Turkey health watch: Keeping bird flu away

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Turkey health watch: Keeping bird flu away

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 31, 2008 1:45 PM

Today, several years removed from the height of the avian flu scares in 2005 and 2006, state health and agricultural experts are confident that while the threat still exists, it has at least been minimized in North Carolina.

In North Carolina, poultry is the No. 1 agricultural industry with more than 5,000 family farms totaling nearly $3 billion in receipts -- 37 percent of the state's total farm income.

In Wayne County, poultry is the No. 2 agricultural industry, with about 140 family farms totaling more than $75 million in gross receipts in 2006 -- 23.5 percent of the county's total farm income.

So protecting that investment is paramount.

"(Avian flu) is not something we can tolerate," said Joanne Quinn, veterinary medical officer and poultry health specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Veterinary Services.

That's why, she explained, departments like the USDA, the U.S. Department of the Interior and others are constantly working together to monitor the health of wild bird populations in the country's four main migration routes -- one of which includes North Carolina.

It's also why not only a national plan has been developed for dealing with outbreaks, but also state, industry and individual plans as well.

"We really feel like it would be possible to contain a high- path (highly pathogenic) AI (avian influenza) if it were to enter the U.S.," she said. "It just takes early detection and rapid response."

And so far, the poultry industry has been fortunate.

Despite a few less virulent strains of avian flu being found from time to time -- the most prominent case of which was in Virginia in 2002 -- there has not been a single documented case of the H5N1 strain so prevalent in east Asia and other developing areas of the world.

But it does still exist with cases documented even this year.

"A lot of areas have cleaned up the problem, but it is still out there. It still circulates," said Donna Carver, veterinarian and associate professor at N.C. State University's Poultry Science Department in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Fortunately, she continued, the virus does not seem to be mutating and attacking the general human population.

Since it was first discovered in 1996, there have only been 373 confirmed cases of bird flu in humans, and only 236 deaths. Almost all, though, were people handling sick and dying birds.

"If you get it, you're likely to die from it," Carver said. "But we've known about this for 12 years and there really have been very few human cases.

"In my opinion, this may not be the candidate for the next pandemic."

North Carolina, however, is not taking any chances, with a unique collaboration between state epidemiologist Jeff Engel, and state veterinarian David Marshall, designed to monitor and contain the threat for both the human and industry populations.

"We have a good testing program in place and I think we're in good shape, but the threat is there," Marshall said. "We can never let our guard down."

And so, he explained, with a rapid response plan in place for industrial outbreaks, the state is now turning its attention to back yard flocks -- not to eliminate them, but to educate their owners about the threats posed by wild birds, which are the main carriers of avian flu, and what to do if they suspect a problem, which is to contact their local cooperative extension service.

The problem, he said, is that even though back yard flocks don't come in contact with industry farms, the virus can still be easily spread through incidental contacts and could pose a risk to those owners.

"When there's a cluster of virus out there, there's the potential for it to spread," Marshall said.

Engel agreed with Carver that the prospects for an outbreak in the general human population are small.

"The general public is at zero risk," he said. "The only people at risk are those in contact with sick and dying birds, and if our plan is done the way it's supposed to, I'm confident we can provide protection for our workers."