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Bird Flu Update: Government Reassures Country that H5N1 Not Seen in America

Furthermore, speaking at press conference here at the Department of Agriculture on Wednesday, March 14, the officials said that if H5N1 should be detected among poultry in the U.S., the government would be able to deal with it based on its record of experience.

"I'd like to remind you that the United States is free of any high path avian influenza virus at this time. Historically, we have detected and eradicated high path avian influenza three times in this country. They were not the H5N1 strain that is causing concern around the world, but they were strains classified as being deadly to birds and easily spread between them. So we've had some practice in responding to high path avian influenza," said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

In the course of the update with reporters, Johanns and the other health and wildlife officials detailed what the government has done up to now to monitor the migration patterns of poultry and their health, as well as contingency plans to deal with outbreaks.

When asked by a reporter if officials are confident they can track the course of a possible outbreak without a mandatory animal identification program in place, one of the speakers replied affirmatively.

"I'd like to remind you that the United States is free of any high path avian influenza virus at this time."— Mike Johanns
"A National Animal ID system will help us in any disease outbreak in terms of tracking animals. I think particularly with the poultry industry and some of the other highly integrated industries where birds typically don't move as individuals but move as large groups of animals, the companies that we work with know where birds came from, they know where they are because we're talking about large groups of birds. And we have excellent cooperation with our industry counterparts," said Dr. Ron DeHaven of the USDA.

"So while a National Animal ID system could certainly assist us and there is no less emphasis in poultry production as some of the other areas, I think we have the benefit of large groups of animals moving through marketing channels as a group. And so it's not as challenging in terms of knowing where animals were and where they are now with poultry as it might be with some other species, for example beef cattle that tend to move individually as opposed to in large groups of animals," DeHaven added.

Johanns also pointed out that a detection of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza in wild birds does not mean America's commercial poultry industry would be affected because contrary to common practices overseas, in the U.S., poultry is raised in controlled environments.

"The U.S. poultry industry is much better positioned to deal with bird flu than many of the countries currently affected by the high path H5N1 virus. There are two reasons I can make this statement," he said. "One, our industry is integrated. In many of the countries struggling with the virus, chickens are commonly raised in yards and even inside homes. In the U.S., chickens, turkeys and eggs produced for human consumption are typically raised in very controlled environments."

Furthermore, Johanns indicated, biosecurity practices have been a part of the business of raising poultry for decades.

"The vast majority of our commercial poultry producers raise their chickens and turkeys in covered structures with very controlled access. Having said that, if the virus did reach a commercial poultry flock, as I said, we have experience in dealing with it, even the more dangerous strains of avian influenza," he said.

Johanns went to great lengths to assuage any fear that H5N1 could signal the end of American civilization. He noted that a detection of H5N1 virus would not automatically result in a human pandemic.

"This virus is not easily transmitted person to person. The vast majority of the people overseas who have become ill have had direct contact with infected birds," he said again pointing out again that Americans do not necessarily come into contact with any kind of poultry as do residents of some foreign countries might.

Johanns also explained that bird flu and the highly pathogenic strain are not food safety issues as are foodborne pathogens. Properly cooked, even infected poultry is safe to eat, he said.

"Our scientists tested infected chicken meat and determined that heating it to 165 degrees kills high path avian influenza, including the H5N1 strain, in a matter of seconds. This confirms that producers have the power to protect themselves, even in the event of an outbreak in birds in the U.S., by simply cooking the poultry to the proper temperature," he said.

"If there's a detection of highly pathogenic H5N1 in this country, it should not cause a loss of confidence in the safety of poultry. Birds that become infected quickly die, so there is little risk of an infected bird entering the food supply. But even if it did, proper cooking kills the avian influenza virus just as it does with other viruses and bacteria."

Government scientists have tested hundreds of thousands of poultry samples, looking for the virus but have found none. This year the USDA will improve its sampling efforts, Johanns said.

"If there's a detection of highly pathogenic H5N1 in this country, it should not cause a loss of confidence in the safety of poultry."— Mike Johanns
"We will be increasing the amount of mortality investigations as compared to last year. We do know, based upon results in Europe and Asia, that the first signs of highly pathogenic H5N1 are oftentimes the observation of sick and dying wild birds. We will be looking at those more closely," elaborated Dr. Rick Kearny, coordinator wildlife: Terrestrial and endangered Resources Program, U.S. Geological Survey, Department of Interior. "Within the Department of the Interior, we shall be expanding upon our live bird sampling activities across the United States. And thirdly, we shall be working more closely with Canada and Mexico. In fact, just last week, representatives of the Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture and the States sat down with our Canadian/Mexican counterparts in order to develop plans for coordinated sampling in 2007 and the exchange of information from those sampling efforts."

The officials also said the relevant government agencies are cooperating with foreign and international institutions to slow the spread of the virus.

"I was joined by the director general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to sign a framework agreement to facilitate greater collaboration between the USDA and the FAO. This framework agreement will help to address all types of animal diseases, and it will specifically assist us with our goal to slow the spread of avail influenza overseas," Johanns said. "I believe this agreement will bolster the effectiveness of FAO, OIE Crisis Center in Rome. We have three USDA specialists assigned to the center, and they help to coordinate and carry out emergency response to animal diseases like high path avail influenza."

Fifty experts, who have expertise in bird flu epidemiology, biosecurity, surveillance and detection from 15 countries attended a USDA workshop here on preparing international rapid deployment teams to combat highly pathogenic avail influenza.

For information on the foodservice distribution industry's pandemic preparation, see IFDA’s Pandemic Planning Guidelines.

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