USDA vows to boost avian flu prevention efforts

Mar 15, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said yesterday it would step up its antismuggling efforts and monitoring of live bird markets this year to protect the country from H5N1 avian influenza.

The agency plans to more than double the number of special operations to seize banned poultry products and will expand the monitoring of live bird markets from 12 states to 29 or 30, officials said at a press briefing yesterday afternoon.

They also announced a renewal of last year's hunt for the H5N1 virus in wild birds throughout the United States, among other steps. The deadly virus was not found in any of the more than 100,000 wild bird samples tested last year.

"There are no detections of high-path[ogenic] H5N1 in the United States, and we're doing all we can to keep it that way," said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

Johanns said the USDA's antismuggling team conducted 31 operations at ports and in restaurants and markets around the country last year, and one led to the seizure of 360,000 pounds of banned poultry products from countries affected by H5N1 avian flu.

This year, plans call for running 70 operations, of which 23 have already been conducted, Johanns said.

Dr. Ron DeHaven, the USDA's chief veterinary officer, said the agency has seized about 400,000 pounds of banned poultry products overall. "I don't have a breakout in terms of the country of origin of that product, but undoubtedly much of it has come from China," he said in answer to a question.

He added that products from countries battling H5N1 avian flu are not necessarily contaminated, since the outbreaks are "relatively sporadic." The products seized are destroyed.

More monitoring of bird markets
In monitoring live bird markets, the USDA has focused until now on 12 northeastern states, where 132,000 birds were tested last year, DeHaven said. This year officials hope to increase the program to a total of 29 or 30 states.

"The focus has been in the Northeast, where we know we had a low-path virus circulating," he said. He didn't name any of the new states but said they are mainly poultry-producing states with different kinds of live markets from those in the Northeast.

This year's wild-bird testing program will be launched in April by the USDA along with the Department of the Interior (DOI), state agencies, and academic researchers, Johanns said.

"Surveillance will again be conducted in all four major flyways, and in Hawaii and the South Pacific," the USDA said in a news release. "Data collected from 2006 will be used to further focus the sampling on high-risk species and geographic locations."

Last year, six samples of the more than 100,000 tested were positive for the low-pathogenic North American strain of H5N1, but the deadly Asian H5N1 strain was not found.

Dr. Rick Kearny of the DOI said officials tested samples from more than 45,000 live birds, nearly 50,000 hunter-killed birds, 500 sentinel birds (captive birds allowed to mingle with wild birds), and more than 1,000 birds found dead.

Kearny said US agencies also aim to increase collaboration with Canadian and Mexican authorities on wild-bird surveillance this year.

Officials also announced completion of a 7-year study of avian flu in waterfowl in Alaska, where Asian and North American birds mingle in summer. Scientists took 8,254 samples and concluded that the risk of introduction of the deadly H5N1 virus in Alaska is "relatively low," according to the news release.

In the briefing, Steve Kappes of the USDA Agricultural Research Service said investigators found only low-pathogenic viruses of North American origin in the study. The suspected reason the deadly virus hasn't been found in Alaska "is that the distance may be too long for a sick bird to get that far," he said. "It's unlikely that we'll see it in Alaska."

The USDA is prepared to test birds quickly if avian flu is suspected in a poultry flock, according to DeHaven. He said all 45 labs in the National Animal Health Laboratory Network are trained to use a recently developed test that can return a result in 3 hours, as compared with up to 2 weeks for previous tests.

"A detection of high-path H5N1 in wild birds does not mean our commercial poultry industry will be affected," Johanns commented. He said US poultry are typically raised in buildings with controlled access, and biosecurity practices have been used for decades.

In addition, the USDA compensates owners for birds destroyed for disease-control reasons. The compensation program now covers birds killed to control all low-pathogenic H5 and H7 viruses—which can mutate into deadly strains—in addition to those culled because of high-pathogenic strains, Johanns said.

International efforts outlined
The USDA also announced the signing of a agreement on coordinating technical assistance with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The agreement, approved last fall, covers plant and animal diseases, including avian flu, and other topics ranging from hunger and conservation to renewable energy.

In the news release, Johanns said the agreement would facilitate greater international collaboration on many agricultural issues. "I believe the benefits will be immediate by enhancing the worldwide response to highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza," he said.

Under the agreement, the FAO and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) set up a Crisis Management Center in Rome last fall. Three USDA specialists are assigned to the center, which analyzes animal diseases and deploys international resources to contain them.

In related efforts, the USDA said it is hosting a workshop in Washington, DC, this week to prepare more than 50 volunteer specialists from 15 countries for rapid international deployment to combat H5N1 avian flu.

In addition, the USDA is helping to coordinate a global communication workshop on avian flu, to be hosted next month by the FAO and OIE. Its aim will be to develop an international communications plan for dealing with animal-to-animal spread of H5N1 avian flu.

See also:

Mar 14 USDA news release

Transcript of USDA press briefing

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