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Bird Flu Woes: Flying This Way?

Experts discuss the potential impact of bird flu that could arrive in the U.S. via wild birds.

Lessons Learned

It was a different story back in 1983 when an H5N2 HPAI bug hit Pennsylvania. It took two years, and the killing of 17 million chickens, to get that outbreak under control. But Lacy says the U.S. poultry industry has learned a lot of lessons since then.

"If we had avian flu in the U.S., it would not be a human health concern," Lacy says. "The reason it is a human concern at all is that we have it in Southeast Asia, where birds and humans live in close contact. That is not the case in the U.S. If the rest of the world had the poultry industry the U.S. has, and had its act as much together in terms of biosecurity, we would not be talking about concern over Asian bird flu. The problem is not a U.S. problem. It has never been and never will be, in my opinion, because of the stringent activity the industry takes to maintain bird health."

Brand, too, has confidence that the poultry industry could contain a new H5N1 outbreak.

"The poultry people are being fairly realistic about what to do if it occurs in controlled chicken flocks," he says. "We have a completely different poultry system here than in Asia. They have controlled bird flu in Canada and the U.S. for years. So if it does get into poultry here, you will see a rigorous control campaign."

Dire Consequences, Long Odds

The wild birds that appear to be spreading H5N1 bird flu usually travel from north to south and back again. Bird flu already has reached Siberia and Eastern Europe in this way. Few birds fly between Europe and the U.S., but some fly between Siberia and Alaska. If bird flu gets established in Alaska, it could enter other U.S. flyways, such as the Mississippi flyway.

"Whether this virus maintains itself over the winter period, and can sustain itself to spread in the spring, is a real question," Brand says. "So nobody knows the risk of it moving north again."

Brand's team already has tested thousands of birds in Alaska. They haven't found anything yet. Next spring, however, the scientists plan to test many, many more birds in all U.S. flyways.

"Waterfowl and shore birds are the principle reservoir for flu viruses in general. Those are the wild species we have seen involved in Asia," Brand says. "Because of that, we will be focusing on a lot of ducks, geese, and swans. As a case in point, we have snow geese that breed in Russia that migrate to North America, so we plan on focusing on that particular species, because it could be exposed to HPAI as these birds fly north."

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