Published on 10/27/05

Poultry industry keeps close eye on Asian bird flu

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

When farmers flooded the annual Sunbelt Expo in Moultrie recently, Mike Lacy was ready. He stacked information about the Asian bird flu on the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ table and prepared for questions.

The informational pamphlets are part of a communication effort being launched by the college, the state’s poultry industry and government agencies.

Asian bird flu, also known as H5N1 or avian influenza, now controls television time and newspaper pages previously reserved for hurricane discussion. According to Lacy, the information being reported often goes a bit overboard.

“Many media reports on the Asian bird flu lead readers to believe that a human pandemic is imminent,” said Lacy, head of the CAES poultry science department. “That is not the case.”

Currently, the virus that causes Asian bird flu doesn’t easily infect humans, he said. The only known human cases are 100 people in Thailand and Vietnam who had direct contact with live, infected poultry.

The disease moved from birds to humans in these cases because most poultry in Southeast Asia is produced in open backyards or villages. In contrast, poultry production in the U.S. protects birds from diseases much better than traditional systems such as free-running chickens.

“Most experts agree that the chances of Asian bird flu becoming a major human health issue are remote at best,” Lacy said. “Nevertheless, public health officials, scientists and the poultry industry are all working hard to assure the public is protected even from the remote chance that Asian bird flu mutates in such a way to easily infect humans.”

Don Hamilton, CAES Homeland Security coordinator, said the college is working with industry and government agencies, like the Georgia Committee on Agriculture and Food Defense, to provide consistent information on Asian bird flu. The committee consists of representatives from the University of Georgia, Georgia Department of Agriculture, Georgia Poultry Federation, USDA and other relevant agencies.

With poultry and table eggs holding top spots in Georgia’s agricultural economic sector, at No. 1 and No. 5 respectively, anything that could hurt the industry causes concern.

Georgia broilers secured a farm gate value of almost $4.2 billion in 2004, which is more than 40 percent of the state’s total agricultural products. In comparison, cotton came in a distant second with 5.9 percent and a value of $608.5 million.

“So, how quickly is it coming?” Hamilton said. “My understanding is that nobody really knows.”

For now, Lacy says, it’s an animal disease, not a human one. “It doesn’t easily infect people. There’s really no indication that it’s going to become a problem in the U.S.”

The U.S. poultry industry monitors birds for serious diseases like the Asian bird flu and for other forms of avian influenza.

“Testing is performed constantly at many different levels within the poultry industry as producers and veterinarians check birds for all types of avian disease,” Lacy said.

When chickens, or any other birds, get the flu, the solution isn’t as simple as giving them medicine. Because avian influenza can wipe out a flock in a few days, federal, state, university, public health, poultry industry trade groups and companies have developed a coordinated, rapid and comprehensive response, he said.

“If Asian bird flu is detected, a wide area around the outbreak will be immediately quarantined, infected birds will be humanely destroyed and disposed of in an environmentally sound way to stop the chance of any additional spread,” Lacy said.

The American Association of Avian Pathologists says the key to fighting Asian bird flu is preparedness.

The USDA has recently invested in implementing improved rapid diagnostics for avian influenza, provided multiple training courses on diagnostics and control of avian influenza, and developed a vaccine bank to allow vaccination to be a control method if needed.

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.