December 2005
From the State Vet's Office

AVIAN INFLUENZA (BIRD FLU) Is the sky really falling? PART 2

by Tony Frazier

We use signs such as "KEEP OUT," "NO TRESPASSING," and "NO ADMITTANCE" to keep people out of places they do not need to be. For even more security, we use locked gates, locked doors, high fences with barbed wire at the top, and guards posted at entrances to restricted facilities. If you have traveled on a commercial airline in the past few years, you know how security personnel scrutinize everything that is brought onto the plane to make sure that nothing that could potentially harm the aircraft or other passengers is allowed. Unfortunately, none of these measures will keep the Avian Influenza virus out of our borders.

There are, however, strategic actions that have been put into place by the USDA, as well as by individual states, that will help minimize the risk of the virus entering our country. For example, no poultry or poultry products are allowed in the United States from countries that have Avian Influenza. However, the risk cannot be completely negated, even by the most sound prevention practices. In a world where a person can be at a live bird market in China today and back at his home here in the U. S. tomorrow, we must remain vigilant and ready to respond quickly and decisively if highly pathogenic Avian Influenza that has plagued many countries in Asia and other parts of the world occurs here.

So, what are we doing about Avian Influenza in Alabama? The big picture of our Avian Influenza program has three components: 1) an early warning or surveillance program; 2) an emergency response plan; 3) a public education program.

Alabama has had an Avian Influenza surveillance program since 1980 through our veterinary diagnostic laboratory system. Testing has increased in 1988, 1994, 2002, and 2005. There is another increase planned for 2006. These tests are performed on both commercial and backyard flocks. During fiscal year 2005, there were 62,525 birds tested from 4,489 flocks. Out of these, 429 noncommercial flocks were tested, including birds from backyard flocks, auctions, flea markets and other groupings of poultry. All tests have been negative.

Our diagnostic labs are equipped with state-of-the-art diagnostics that allow for very rapid tests results including virus isolation, DNA tests and serologic blood tests. The laboratory system has five board-certified specialists in poultry diseases who routinely conduct post mortem examinations on poultry and other birds. There are five laboratory veterinarians and one animal industry staff veterinarian as well as four USDA veterinarians in the state who have trained at the Foreign Animal Disease Facility at Plum Island, New York. The training at that facility includes hands-on training with highly pathogenic Avian Influenza. Therefore, we are actively looking for and have the ability to recognize and diagnose the disease if it does occur in Alabama.

Secondly, we have a written detailed response plan as to how we in the state of Alabama will respond if Avian Influenza occurs either in Alabama or in some other state. This plan spells out such areas as quarantines, stop movements, testing, carcass disposal, and other regulatory issues involving highly pathogenic Avian Influenza. The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, through the State Department of Homeland Security is purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE) that would allow our field personnel to work with infected flocks. We are currently in the process of enhancing the plan to include input from the Alabama Department of Public Health. Our department has also participated in a number of exercises that involved a pretend outbreak of Avian Influenza.

The final component of our program is that of public education. While there is absolutely no way to predict the outcome of a highly pathogenic Avian Influenza outbreak, we feel that it is vitally important to keep the public informed about the factual aspects of the disease. It is difficult to sort through all of the information that comes from virtually every media outlet in order to make sense of it all.

Recently, Commissioner Sparks and the Alabama Department of Public Health conducted a press conference to answer questions about the disease. The Department also produces press releases when significant Avian Influenza information is generated that could affect the state. We are also in the process of putting together a brochure containing facts about the disease. That brochure will be made available to various outlets through out the state early next year.

So, while we hope that highly pathogenic Avian Influenza does not visit our borders, we are not sitting on our hands waiting to see what happens. We are on the front line watching for and preparing for the disease. And, yes we do carry a four-leaf clover for good luck.