One day as I was driving to work on I-65, all the traffic came to a complete stop and we sat there for a while. Finally, as we got to moving and crawled along at about the pace of a foundered horse, we came upon the scene of the accident. There on a roll-back wrecker was a twisted, mangled lump of metal that, earlier that morning, could have been identified as whatever make and model of vehicle it was. The vehicle on the wrecker was in such bad shape it made me wonder how anyone could have survived the accident. Later, I found out the occupant of that vehicle did not survive. As I drove by in the one lane they were allowing traffic to use, I noticed a couple of workers sweeping broken glass, pieces of metal and other debris from the wreck off the side of the interstate.
As I drove on into the office that morning, I became a little philosophical as I sometimes do. I thought about those workers cleaning up after the wreck and realized that we government animal health employees are not too different from the people cleaning up after the wreck and making the interstate safe to drive on again. I began to think about the highly pathogenic avian influenza that spread across the United States and has affected at least 21 states and has resulted in the loss of over 48 million birds according to the USDA’s website. The last detection was on June 17 in Iowa. I thought about the potential "wreck" avian influenza could cause if it comes into Alabama, considering the economic importance of the poultry industry to our state. I thought about how, if prevention, our first line of defense, against a highly contagious disease has been breached, then we follow the three R’s. No, that is not reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic. They are recognition, response and recovery. I would say we are as prepared as we can be to diagnose the disease. My concern is that over the years we have become smaller and smaller as a government entity. I am not sure we have the manpower for the rapid response that could be needed if avian influenza makes it to our state. That could leave us "sweeping the debris off the road" and making it safe for the poultry industry to travel the road again.
As I mentioned, the first level of defense against a foreign animal disease like avian influenza (bird flu) is prevention. There are two major areas we can prevent avian influenza from entering the state. First, we can make sure no wild waterfowl carrying the virus flies into Alabama. On second thought, there is only one major way we can prevent avian influenza from entering our state. We must do everything we can to prevent the virus being transported, either in birds, on people or on vehicles or equipment coming into Alabama. The legal requirements for poultry being brought into our state can be found on the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries website at agi.alabama.gov. Click on "Divisions" then click on "Animal Health." Remember, if you are ordering chicks through some mail-order hatchery, it is your responsibility to make sure all regulatory entry requirements are met. That includes that all such poultry, chicks or otherwise, must be accompanied by an official certificate of veterinary inspection, fondly referred to as health certificates, or other approved document. It is especially important now that, if you are bringing chicks in from other states, you make sure they are not coming from areas with avian influenza. Then, concerning bringing the virus in on people, vehicles or equipment, we must really stress biosecurity. It could be time to rerun an article about biosecurity. I think there is one around here somewhere.
Our next level of defense is rapid recognition of the virus or diseased birds in our state. The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, the USDA Veterinary Services, the poultry industry and Wildlife Services have, for quite some time now, been reasonably intense in our surveillance for avian influenza. Beyond that we depend on veterinarians, backyard poultry owners and people involved in National Poultry Improvement Plan to help be our boots on the ground to watch for any kind of unusual disease outbreak. And I believe our laboratory system is up to the task of helping identify avian influenza or other foreign diseases that might occur. It would likely stretch the labs pretty thin, but I believe our lab personnel are up to the task. And, if we strongly suspect we have avian influenza, we will assume positive until proven negative by USDA. Anyway, the final diagnosis has to come from the National Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.
The next level of defense is what concerns me. Over the years, our work force to deal with such events as an avian influenza outbreak has become pretty small. The USDA Veterinary Services used to maintain a pretty formidable work force in each state. But as we have heard a call for decreasing the size of government, their work force has become a very mobile group that, when called into action, may go to California and work, come home for a short time, then go to Iowa for a while and work, return home for a short period, then go to Minnesota to help them respond to an outbreak. The USDA animal health employees in Alabama, like those in other states, have had to keep their suitcases packed and have spent a lot of time working these responses in other states for several weeks or even months now. Over the past couple of decades, the number of people, veterinarians and non-veterinarians, available to work these outbreaks has been reduced significantly. So, I sometimes wonder, "If Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama have to respond to avian influenza at the same time, where is the help going to come from?"
I spoke to one of my state veterinarian colleagues recently and he said that dealing with avian influenza in his state had really stretched their personnel and resources … and that was with USDA coming in to help. His last comment to me was, "And we don’t have a fraction of the poultry farms you do in Alabama." We have many issues to consider if an outbreak occurs. Carcass disposal will have to be dealt with in a way that does not spread disease and does not pose a threat to the environment. I know, from talking to friends from other states as well as USDA personnel from Alabama who have gone other places to help out, it is very labor intensive.
On a recent afternoon, I was headed home. On my way out of Montgomery, again I was on I-65. I happened to notice a lady who, on her way home from work, apparently had car trouble and had pulled off on the shoulder of the interstate. And even though her plans for the evening had been altered a bit, there was someone with a local wrecker service hooking up to her car to tow it somewhere. I just wondered to myself, "What if she had called the wrecker service and nobody came?" "What if she had called and there was nobody who could come because they were all busy elsewhere?" Then I wondered, "What if we have to clean up after the wreck and nobody comes because they are all busy elsewhere?"
Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama. You can contact him at 334-240-7253.