- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 17, 2002

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A surge of unseasonable heat this week may help Shenandoah Valley poultry farmers in their battle against avian flu.

Although eight more farms tested positive for the highly contagious illness during the weekend, a sliver of hope arrived Monday as area temperatures reached the 80s. The drizzly, 50-degree highs that had prevailed during the past few weeks favored the virus, said Elaine Lidholm, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

"The heat may be good for fighting avian flu, because the virus does not like hot, dry weather," she said. "It prefers cool, moist conditions, which is what we've been having."

The mild strain of avian flu that continues to spread through chicken and turkey farms has reached 67 flocks containing 1.63 million birds, Miss Lidholm said.

That total surpasses the number of birds killed during the last major avian flu outbreak 18 years ago, when about 1.5 million birds exposed to the virus were destroyed and buried.

Poultry companies have slaughtered slightly more than 1 million birds since the start of the epidemic last month. Under quarantine awaiting slaughter are 581,300 in flocks that have tested positive for avian flu.

On Monday, Sens. George Allen and John W. Warner, both Virginia Republicans, and Reps. Robert W. Goodlatte, Frank R. Wolf and Eric Cantor, all Virginia Republicans, signed a letter sent to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman.

The letter estimated disposal costs for the outbreak in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and the overall impact in the millions. The legislators asked the agriculture secretary to make as much money as possible available to farmers and companies hit by the epidemic.

"This is essential to contain the current outbreak before it comes unmanageable," the letter said.

The USDA paid $5.8 million in indemnities to farmers as a result of the 1984 outbreak. This outbreak might not cost as much because the state veterinarian is allowing some of the birds to be slaughtered for sale after they recover and no longer test positive.

Usually, public money for avian flu is reserved for cases deemed "highly pathogenic," which kill most of the birds they infect. The strain involved in the epidemic is considered mildly pathogenic. Most of the birds infected get over the coldlike illness. But each time the virus goes through an animal, it could mutate and emerge as a lethal strain.

That's what happened in the 1980s, and it's what lawmakers worry will happen with this strain if it isn't eradicated soon.

"Scientists have concluded this strain of avian influenza is merely two amino acids away from a high-pathogen form of AI," the letter signed by the legislators said.

"Why wait until it's the high-path strain when it's so close to being that?" asked Mr. Allen's spokeswoman, Carrie Cantrell.

The disease has afflicted farms in Rockingham, Shenandoah, Page and Augusta counties. Rockingham, where the first case was confirmed March 12, has borne the brunt of the outbreak, with 49 farms affected, Miss Lidholm said.

The virus poses no threat to humans.

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