- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The secretaries of Health and Human Services, Agriculture and Interior gathered for reporters Monday to declare unanimously that avian flu is headed for the United States. “It is likely that we will detect it within our borders,” began Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. Outgoing Interior Secretary Gale Norton and HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt both concurred. “Possibly as early as this year,” added Mrs. Norton.

As dire as this prediction might sound, it should not come as a surprise. Avian flu has been spreading throughout Asia for several years, mostly among migratory birds and rural chicken ranches, like those scattered throughout Southeast Asia, where a majority of human cases have originated. The appearance of avian flu in Europe in the last few months is consistent with migratory routes. Unlike Asia, where the poultry industry in many areas remains predominantly rural, so far no cases have been reported in European poultry stocks.

Understanding where avian flu has been provides us with a few lessons about where it is going. First, despite the best efforts of the U.S. government to track migratory birds coming to Alaska, it is simply not possible to “build a cage around the United States,” as Mr. Johanns said. The appearance of avian flu in North America should not be seen as a failure of the government. Second, when avian flu does appear, chances are it will be among wild birds as with European outbreaks and not within the nation’s poultry supply. Just 1 percent of U.S. poultry comes from free-range chickens. The rest is closely monitored by both government and industry inspectors, and regulated heavily with layers of safeguards.

That said, none of the 175 reported human cases of avian flu since 2003 has come from eating poultry. While the virus does reside in poultry meat, the high temperatures used in cooking kill the strand, making it completely safe for human consumption. But as with the overblown panic of mad-cow disease, European consumers have shied away from eating chicken. In France, the decline has been 40 percent. Since polls suggest that a similar decline in consumption would occur in the United States, the greatest threat avian flu presents right now is to the poultry industry.

The point is not to panic. As Mr. Johanns said, “clear and comprehensive reporting of this story will make the difference between informing and alarming the public.” The U.S. media should heed this advice.

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