Bird flu found in Pa.; experts say no human threat

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SALEM, Ohio – Pennsylvania is the latest in a string of states confirming the presence of avian influenza, a variant of the bird flu decimating southeast Asia.

A 480,000-hen flock in southeastern Pennsylvania tested positive for the flu Feb. 13 although it did not show signs of the disease. The birds have not been killed and the farm in Lancaster County remains under quarantine.

Sixteen Pa. flocks in the 2-mile surveillance zone are being tested for the bird flu.

Around the globe. Word of avian influenza in the United States breaks at a time when the world is already on heightened alert.

The Asian strain of the flu has killed at least 20 people and millions of birds.

But experts stress the U.S. strains are much less threatening to people and the poultry industry.

More positives. Pennsylvania isn’t alone. Nearly 84,000 birds were killed from two farms last week in Delaware after testing positive for the bird flu.

And birds in four New Jersey live-bird markets tested positive during routine testing.

The avian influenza strains in Delaware and New Jersey are not the same as the one found in Pennsylvania.

Export issues. The biggest financial impact of the bird flu is the loss of exports, said Mo Saif, head of the Food Animal Health Research Program at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.

The announcement of avian influenza in the United States comes in the wake of mad cow disease, when countries immediately closed their borders to U.S. beef imports. Many countries, including Japan, South Korea and China, have now also closed their borders to U.S. poultry.

Exports make up 20 percent of the multibillion-dollar American poultry market, Saif said.

In Ohio, poultry is a $510 million-a-year industry and is the fastest-growing sector of animal agriculture, according to the Ohio Poultry Association.

In Pennsylvania, the industry is worth $700 million a year.

Again and again. This isn’t the first time avian influenza has been in the United States. It’s been here off and on for ages, Saif said.

It’s never spread to humans, he noted.

But it did significantly hit Pennsylvania poultry in the early ’80s.

A seemingly mild outbreak of the virus simmered and spread. Within months, it had mutated into a dangerous strain that cost the state’s poultry industry 22 million birds and hundreds of millions of dollars.

When another outbreak hit the commonwealth in 2001, it was prepared with a new rapid diagnostic test.

“Using that test, we were able to diagnose the 2001 problem in just one day, which enabled the state and poultry producers to contain and eliminate the outbreak,” said Penn State avian veterinarian Patty Dunn.

Pennsylvania’s Avian Influenza Monitored Flock Program tests 331 flocks each month. The Department of Agriculture also collects samples from poultry sold at 21 bird auctions and two live-bird markets in Philadelphia.

Like the human flu. Avian influenza is not a disease that can be completely eradicated, USDA’s Chief Veterinary Officer Ron DeHaven said earlier this month.

He said the virus is common in wild fowl and migrating bird populations and some outbreaks are usually found this time of year.

“Once the virus is in the system, it’s very difficult to totally eliminate,” he said. “It would be like trying to eliminate flu viruses that affect people every year.”

Taking measures. Officials push the importance of biosecurity. This includes limiting movement on and off the farm, cleaning and disinfecting equipment, and not visiting other poultry flocks.

If an infected chicken made it into the food supply, Saif said cooking the meat would kill the virus. There’s also no worry of it being transferred in eggs, he said.

People can spread the airborne respiratory flu on their clothing and shoes.

The rapidly moving virus can also spread between flocks and infect a variety of birds including ducks, geese and turkeys, according to the USDA.

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

Signs of bird flu

*      sudden death without clinical signs



*      lack of energy and appetite



*      decreased egg production



*       soft-shelled or misshapen eggs



*      swelling of the head, eyelids, comb, wattles and hocks



*      purple discoloration of the wattles, combs and legs



*      nasal discharge



*       coughing, sneezing



*       incoordination



*      diarrhea

Source: USDA/APHIS



Get the details

*      If you suspect a case of avian influenza, notify state health officials:

      Pa. Bureau of Animal Health and Diagnostic Services

      717-772-2852

      Ohio’s Division of Animal Industry

      800-282-1955

*      Pa. Dept. of Ag.: www.agriculture.state.pa.us/

      Delaware Dept. of Ag.: www.state.de.us/deptagri/

      N.J. Dept of Ag.: www.state.nj.us/agriculture/

      World Health Organization: www.who.int/csr/disease/avian_influenza/en/

      www.nationalchickencouncil.com

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