- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2004

The outbreak of bird flu, which has killed seven persons and led to the slaughter of millions of chickens in Southeast Asia, poses no threat in the United States and little peril to American tourists, health officials say.

Unlike with the deadly SARS virus that killed hundreds of people last year in Asia and Canada, the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued no travel warnings for the affected countries, primarily because the disease is not known to spread from person to person.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that travelers to nations with bird-flu cases simply stay away from poultry farms and open markets.

The biggest fear among public officials is that an individual already infected with a human flu strain could catch bird flu, also known as avian influenza, at the same time.

“It is very scary,” said Dave Daigle, spokesman for infectious diseases at the CDC.

“So far, people who have contracted the disease got it by handling chickens, from contact with [chicken] feces or saliva. If you already had human H3N1 flu, the strain that is going around this year, and you contracted bird flu and the viruses combined. … This has the potential for a global pandemic if we see human-to-human transmission.”

The fear is that the genetic material from the two viruses could combine and produce a deadly, new disease, Mr. Daigle said.

“This is not a theoretical concern, and we believe it becomes more likely as more people are infected,” he said.

For that reason, public health officials are closely tracking the bird-flu virus, known as H5N1.

The CDC has two teams on the ground working with the WHO to corral the disease and stop its spread.

When a chicken gets the bird flu, it usually dies. Any chicken within a three-mile radius of the sick bird must be killed and destroyed to contain the disease.

Millions of chickens have died or been slaughtered in Asia in the past few weeks in an effort to stop the disease.

Vietnam has slaughtered more than 3 million chickens, Pakistan 4 million and Thailand some 9 million.

Yesterday, Indonesia announced it had detected the disease in its chickens, joining Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

Chickens were also being tested in Laos, and Reuters news agency quoted an unnamed government official early today as saying the tests had confirmed the presence of bird flu.

The U.S. poultry industry said there is little or no chance of the disease reaching American shores and endangering poultry business here.

It is believed the disease infected Asian chickens after the birds came in contact with migratory wild ducks, which come from Siberia and winter in Southeast and South Asia.

The virulent strain of bird flu carried by these ducks is not found in the Western Hemisphere. In addition, there are barriers between U.S. birds being raised for consumption, often in closed buildings, and wild fowl.

Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, representing farmers who produce 8.5 billion chickens a year, said yesterday American consumers have nothing to fear.

“The United States exports chicken. We import very, very little, and what we do import is processed, smoked chicken from Israel, some pate from France, a small amount of fresh chicken from Canada. Nothing from Asia,” he said.

He said that avian flu does occur here, noting that 5 million birds were put down in Virginia in 2002, but it was a “low-pathogen” variety of bird flu, equivalent to the “sniffles” and a danger only to other chickens.

He said it would be difficult for a terrorist to bring the Asian bird flu to the United States and infect American birds.

“[Terrorism] is something the industry is aware of. I’ve heard it spoken about in conferences. Only authorized people are allowed on the farms near the birds,” he said.

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