May 11, 2015


The earlier the better for US to beat bird flu crisis



The full picture is devastating for the poultry industry of the US. Consider: The total number of birds--including turkeys and egg-laying chickens --affected by the current outbreaks of the deadly H5N2 avian influenza, mostly in the Midwest section of the country, has reached 26 million and the situation seems to be not abating. It is said the avian-flu crisis is the most serious since the 1020s. Several affected states including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, which is the country's No. 1 egg producer.


The list of countries imposing a ban on US poultry imports are increasing, too, with the ban extending even to products from non-affected states, leading US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to wonder aloud last week, "[Why] would you say 'you can't buy poultry from Virginia or North Carolina'"? when he requested China to end a ban on US-wide poultry imports. (Virginia and North Carolina, both South Atlantic states, are not affected by the bird-flu outbreaks.)


Vietnam is the latest to announce temporary suspension of poultry imports from the US. Besides China, countries that earlier imposed similar bans from all states--regardless of whether they have experienced bird-flu outbreaks--include Mexico, Japan, Canada, South Korea, Thailand, Russia and Angola.


At least 40 other countries or regions have banned poultry imports only from affected states. Still others like Honduras, Kazakhstan and Qatar require products to be heated to a temperature that will kill the virus.

The manner by which the virus is spreading--even if heightened biosecurity measures are in place--is still baffling researchers and veterinarians. What seems to be a consensus now is that it is transmitted from farm to farm through the air. For example, feathers, dust or manure blown out of an infected farm may reach another farm to infect it. This manner of infection is deemed to be the most believable. An example cited is a large chicken operation, one of whose 25 barns were infected and in a matter of four to five days the number of infected barns rose to 21.


The rapidity of infection, according to researchers, couldn't be explained by poultry farm employees or trucks as agents of infection but only by the airborne process.




But scientists are also puzzled why largely unprotected backyard flocks seem to be spared from widespread deaths. "At this point, we don't know very much about these viruses because they've only recently been identified," said Dr. Alicia Fry, the leader of the influenza prevention and control team of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Richard French, a professor of animal health at Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts said, "Ideally we've got to try and figure out the way it's most likely moving and try to put controls in place to stop that."


But the US seems to be running out of time in trying to contain the H5N2 bird flu, which has festered the industry for the past five months already. Measures that it has undertaken include quarantining of infected farms and culling of birds. Poultry farms also require employees to change clothes and boots before entering barns, and equipment and vehicles to be disinfected before they approach the barns.


The enormity of the crisis demands that the industry, for its own sake, should do more in a shorter period, such as perhaps discovering a preventive vaccine or power feed?


The current H5N2 outbreaks are affecting not only the poultry industry in the affected states but also in the non-affected ones. The US' largest chicken processor, Tyson Foods, said the primary effect of the bird-flu outbreaks is lost export sales. The government forecasts that US chicken exports will drop to an eight-year low this year.


The US Department of Agriculture said it is working with the poultry industry to mitigate the impact on exports.


"We are actively engaging with most of these countries [that have imposed temporary bans] to reduce these restrictions," USDA spokesperson Joelle Hayden said.


Licking the problem is surely the key to the lifting of the temporary import bans.

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