- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Agriculture Department yesterday said it was equipped to handle a potential bird-flu outbreak, stressing that milder forms of the virus periodically hit the United States.

“There is no reason for an overreaction” if a less virulent form of bird flu emerges during the coming bird-flu season, said Dr. Ron DeHaven, administrator for the federal agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The agency organized a Washington press conference yesterday to quell any consumer panic about the H5N1 strain of bird flu, which can be deadly to humans and has spread from Asia into Romania, Turkey, Greece and Russia in the past few weeks.

The virus has been reported in 77 humans, causing 30 deaths, since December, according to the World Health Organization.

The bird flu generally is not spread from human-to-human contact, but scientists are concerned the H5N1 virus one day could mutate into a particularly virulent strain and be able to spread easily among humans.

So far, that strain has not appeared in the United States, although milder versions of the virus have shown up in the past two decades, Dr. DeHaven said.

The agency wants “to assure the public there’s absolutely no reason not to have turkey for Thanksgiving,” he said.

The agency is randomly sampling live chickens and turkeys at commercial farms nationwide to check for the virus.

Additionally, the Interior Department, which tracks and protects the nation’s wildlife, is surveying samples from 2,000 to 3,000 wild birds annually to determine whether birds from other countries could bring the virus to America.

The federal agency sampled about 12,000 birds in the past five years and has found a low incidence of bird flu that affects only birds.

Most of the testing has been done in Alaska, but Richard Kearney, wildlife program coordinator for the department’s U.S. Geological Survey, said the agency is considering tests in Eastern states that would check birds from Europe.

Chicken industry officials on the Delmarva Peninsula said they have had security measures in place for years to stop bird-flu outbreaks.

Allen Family Foods Inc., a Seaford, Del., chicken company, will meet with its 450 chicken growers in two weeks to discuss their safeguards, said Gary Gladys, live-operations vice president.

The company has encouraged farmers to wear plastic boots in their chicken houses and shield the chickens from any other animal contact.

Allen also urged farmers to get flu shots to prevent a potential bird flu from mutating with a human flu into another virus, Mr. Gladys said.

Perdue Farms Inc. has similar safety policies in place for its 2,400 family farms that grow chickens and turkeys for the Salisbury, Md., chicken company, said spokeswoman Julie DeYoung. The company routinely conducts disease testing for flocks before they are slaughtered, she said.

Paul Downes, a vice president for Selbyville, Del., chicken company Mountaire Farms Inc., did not return calls for comment.

While he has measures in place, Pittsville, Md., chicken farmer Bill Kenney said he has been more cautious when an outbreak has hit the U.S. He put up signs to restrict traffic to his farm after a form of bird flu, which did not threaten humans, was found last year in Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland.

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