(Courtesy of National Chicken Council)
Government officials and the poultry industry are stepping up efforts to stop bird flu. Critics say there are some weak links in that defense. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports.
Wild birds are transmitters of the H5N1 virus. The federal government has recently launched a program to monitor migratory birds coming into the US and detect whether they are bringing bird flu with them. Host Jeff Young speaks with Hon Ip of the US Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center.
YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young, sitting in for Steve Curwood.
The deadly strain of avian flu that first arose in East Asia is on the move. Wild birds in Europe and poultry in Africa have tested positive for the H5N1 strain. That virus has killed at least 91 people who apparently caught it from poultry. Scientists fear the virus could mutate and pass from person to person, perhaps bringing a pandemic flu.
The virus has not been detected in North America, and US wildlife and agriculture officials want to keep it that way. With help from the poultry industry, state and federal agencies have stepped up efforts to detect and stop avian flu strains that might infect livestock or people. It’s an enormous undertaking, stretching from bird breeding grounds in Alaska to southern poultry farms, and even this simple market in New York city’s Spanish Harlem.
YOUNG: Dozens of stacked metal cages line the hall of Manhattan Live Chicken Market, filled with red soup birds, white broilers, turkeys and ducks, pheasants and pigeons. Employee Nabil Mohsen carries by the feet two chickens a customer hand-picked. At a blood splattered counter, he bends back a bird’s neck and draws a long knife along its throat.
YOUNG: Quick work
MOHSEN: Yeah, real quick.
YOUNG: He puts the bird upside down in a tube built into the counter to let its blood drain. A machine plucks the feathers, then Mohsen guts the carcass.
MOHSEN: It’s a little bit messy, but whenever we get rid of the customers we start cleaning the whole store.
YOUNG: He’ll chop the bird and bag it.
MOHSEN: Most of the customers here are old fashioned. They’re from different parts of the world, not born and raised in America. So usually that’s how they buy their chickens. I heard it makes you healthy, more healthy, and you live longer. That’s what they say.
YOUNG: But live bird markets can also pose health risks. Public health officials are concerned that the 90 or so markets in New York, and others around the country, could be weak links in the defense against bird flu. Nine years ago, in Hong Kong, the H5N1 strain killed six people; some of whom had visited live bird markets.
In the US, other strains of bird flu are common. They do not threaten people, but can be disastrous to poultry. And several farm outbreaks have been linked to live markets. Ron DeHaven directs the US Department of Agriculture’s animal and plant health inspection service. DeHaven says live markets let viruses move around.
DEHAVEN: Indeed, that is a pathway when you have birds coming into those markets from a variety of sources and equipment and people accompanying those birds, then leaving those markets and going back home, you have a perfect pathway to spread disease.
YOUNG: This is not a new concern. DeHaven says there is a yearly flu season for poultry just as there is for people. What’s new is the scale of the effort and the sense of urgency. In New York, for example, they’ve increased market inspections and testing at farms. Delivery trucks must wash cages between each stop. And markets must close briefly every three months to thoroughly disinfect. DeHaven says it’s starting to pay off.
DEHAVEN: We’ve seen the remarkable decrease in the number of those samples that actually find some virus present. So, we’re making progress, but we’re not entirely there yet.
YOUNG: Major US poultry producers have no connection to live markets – the risk of infection is too great. The industry, too, is increasing safeguards. National Chicken Council spokesperson Richard Lobb says last month poultry companies enhanced their testing for the more dangerous flu strains.
LOBB: So the upshot is that no broiler flock in the country will go to market, will enter the food chain, without a clean test for avian influenza. So we will be able to assure our customers that all the products we are selling them are made from flocks that have tested clear for avian influenza.
YOUNG: About 23,000 young chickens will spend most of their lives in this sealed, climate-controlled birdhouse. Valley Pike Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley has four of these houses, and produces nearly 600,000 broilers in a year. Father and son farmers Gary and Matt Lohr let my recorder in the chicken house, but not me. Gary says tight bio-security prohibits visitors.
G. LOHR: You don’t let anybody in on your farm. You always disinfect feet and everything before you go in a house, and try to be as careful as you can.
YOUNG: Despite all that care, the Lohr farm was among 200 in the valley hit by avian flu four years ago.
YOUNG: The Lohrs’ entire flock was destroyed
G. LOHR: Well it made you sick. There’s your whole lost income, and you worked all that hard, and one bird tested positive so they put everything down. Which, in the long run, that was the thing to do. But it was really hard to accept.
YOUNG: The outbreak cost farms and companies around $150 million. The government paid about half that to bail out poultry growers. The Lohrs still don’t know the source of the infection. And they worry about what might happen if there is another amid the heightened public concern about the deadly H5N1 strain.
M. LOHR: The fear that I have is that when people hear about bird flu, if we were to ever have another outbreak of our bird flu, it would just be hysteria. People would automatically think that this is the Asian bird flu that is going to wipe out all of civilization. So, I think that we have to do a good job of educating people that there are different strands.
G. LOHR: And we hope people don’t stop eating chicken because of this. It’s healthy, it’s good for ya, it doesn’t hurt you. So don’t panic and stop eating chicken. That’s our livelihood.
YOUNG: Public health officials stress that even if the H5N1 strain arrives, consumers could still safely eat chicken, so long as they safely handle and cook the birds. But some critics question whether an industry with so many birds so sensitive to flu can be protected.
BARNARD: Americans eat a million chickens per hour. You don’t get that enormous scale of poultry production without huge interactions between poultry workers and birds. And that is the problem.
YOUNG: That’s Dr. Neal Barnard of the group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Barnard says the live markets are an unacceptable risk.
BARNARD: Live bird markets should have been shut down a long time ago.
YOUNG: So far, federal and state officials say there’s no need for that.
[LIVE BIRD MARKET SOUNDS]
YOUNG: The folks at Manhattan Live Chicken Market say they’ve lost a few customers since bird flu hit the headlines. But even on the day of a record snowstorm there’s steady business. Frances Torres has come for three red hens for soup.
TORRES: I’m not afraid. When I come to this place I know they’re gonna care for our health and they not gonna give us chickens that are sick.
YOUNG: Torres grew up on a farm in Puerto Rico’s mountains. For her, buying live birds is a link to home, and an important part of her traditional cooking.
TORRES: You don’t put tomato sauce, you just put the Spanish vegetables, the onion, and you just eat it fresh. A drop of salt, garlic. That’s the way I grew up. I wouldn’t change it. Some people forget their culture when they come here, some of us. But I’m very, very the old fashioned way.
YOUNG: You’re making me hungry.
TORRES: Stop by later on, maybe by 6 o’clock and have some soup. (Laughs)
YOUNG: Markets and farms aren’t the only places under increased scrutiny. Immigration and customs officers watch ports and boarders for illegal poultry trafficking. And wildlife scientists recently launched a nation-wide system to monitor migrating birds. Scientists don’t know exactly how the H5N91 virus moves. Dr. Hon Ip hopes to find out and stop it.
Ip is a virologist with the US Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Center. And he joins us now from Madison, Wisconsin. Dr. Ip, welcome to Living On Earth.
IP: Thank you for having me.
YOUNG: What is the possible scenario by which this deadly strain of the virus might come to North America?
IP: We think that there’s going to be three possible routes. And they are potentially a sick person traveling to an infected area and coming back from it; the legal and illegal import of poultry and poultry products; and then, thirdly, you know, possibility from migratory birds being infected and then flying back to North America.
YOUNG: Which route of migration are we most interested in here? I think Alaska is getting a lot of focus. Why Alaska?
IP: The major group of birds that are current suspects are birds that are wintering in the area where H5N1 currently is, and possibly flying directly back to North America up towards Alaska. And then there are other birds that are sort of like intermediary relay groups, where birds from the Asian continent will move up to Siberia and the Russian Far East, mingle with other birds that can possibly bring it over to North America.
YOUNG: So how do we find out if it has reached North America?
IP: Well, the US Geological Survey, along with other federal and state government agencies, have put together this national plan for early surveillance in order to detect H5N1 coming to North America. What we’ve done is to look through the species of birds that are known to have this contact between the two continents; look at where they are, when they come back, where they come to when they come back. And we have plans to go out and sample a significant number of them in order to look for the presence of H5N1 virus.
YOUNG: If you find this deadly strain of the virus in wild birds, is there any sort of contingency plan to eliminate the threat by eliminating those birds?
IP: Eliminating wild birds is not a practice that is recommended. Wild birds play a role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. You can’t go out and willy-nilly, you know, abate whole species; that causes other ecological problems. So culling wild birds, you might actually, if you don’t do it right, you might actually disperse the birds into a wider area – just the opposite of what you’re trying to do.
YOUNG: You know, not to be unnecessarily scary about this, but is this an issue that causes you concern? Is this one you’ve maybe had some sleepless nights about?
IP: It is a concern in terms of what the virus does to birds. I would say that the number of human cases, although very sad, is actually very surprisingly low. And so at the current time this Asian H5N1, it’s threat to humans are really incidental. However, the virus is highly lethal certainly to domestic poultry, especially chickens, and it has had dramatic die-offs of Bar Headed Geese in Quinghai, maybe a lot of swans in Europe. And so what that virus might do to North American birds? It’s a worry.
YOUNG: Dr. Hon Ip is a virologist with the US Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center. Thanks very much for talking with us.
IP: Thank you.
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