AVIAN INFLUENZA: ARE WE PREPARED?
by Nancy Marano
Are you frightened by the idea of bird flu? Television movies sensationalize people’s fears over what a pandemic would mean by presenting the disease’s direst consequences. But what is the likely scenario in the United States and here in New Mexico? What precautions can we take to avoid or lessen the effects of bird flu should it arrive on our doorstep?
Avian flu is caused by viruses that occur naturally in wild birds. Usually these viruses do not kill the wild birds that carry them, but they can make domesticated birds sick and may kill them. Birds infected with the virus shed it in their saliva, nasal secretions and feces. Other birds catch it by being in contact with infected birds or by contact with surfaces contaminated by the virus. The concern is that the H5N1 virus, which is highly pathogenic in birds, could cross the species barrier infecting humans and other mammals. To date, the humans who have become ill with bird flu have contracted it directly from infected birds. A pandemic becomes possible when a virus is capable of spreading by human-to-human transmission. This has not happened yet with the H5N1 virus. Humans do not have a natural immunity to the virus, which is why various agencies are monitoring the progress of the disease so closely.
The H5N1 strain of avian influenza virus first appeared in Hong Kong in 1997. Since then, public health officials and wildlife experts have been monitoring the virus’s spread. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are a number of ways the virus could enter the United States, although it has not been found here yet. Wild bird migration, illegal smuggling of birds or poultry products, and travel by infected people or people traveling with virus-contaminated items from places where H5N1 already exists are the most likely ways of transmitting the virus.
The Alaskan flyway would be the logical entry point for migratory birds carrying the virus from locations where it has been found in Asia to the United States. Interagency teams of wildlife disease biologists, veterinarians and epidemiologists are working with the State of Alaska to test for the virus. The sampling system to determine whether the virus is being carried by migratory birds is five-pronged:
1. Test the morbidity/mortality in wild birds. If sick or dying birds test positive for the virus, poultry and swine populations in the area would be monitored.
2. Monitor live, apparently healthy birds. In 2006 investigators plan to take samples from 75,000 to 100,000 live and dead birds.
3. Monitor hunter-killed birds. Checkpoints throughout the United States would test birds killed by hunters.
4. Use of sentinel animals. This would mean testing small flocks of poultry reared in back yards and flocks of ducks in wetland areas that commingle with wild birds.
5. Environmental sampling of water and bird feces. These tests can provide evidence of the movement of influenza viruses in wild bird populations.
Testing will also be carried out in the Pacific flyway, and the Pacific Islands, followed by sampling in the Central, Mississippi and Atlantic flyways.
Planning is going on throughout the country to deal with the problems of a possible pandemic. The federal government has announced $100 million in grants for state and local preparedness. New Mexico’s share of this grant, based on population, is $956,824. The grant, according to a Department of Health and Human Services release, “…focuses on practical, community-based procedures that could prevent or delay the spread of pandemic influenza.” A planning summit was held here in March, 2006 where officials estimated 30 to 40 percent of the population would be affected if there is a pandemic.
New Mexico has a multi-agency plan focusing on animals as well, according to Dr. Mark DiMenna, an environmental health supervisor with the Bio-Disease Management Department in Albuquerque. These agencies include the USDA Wildlife Services Group, New Mexico Game and Fish and Bio-Disease Management for Albuquerque and Bernalillo County.
“The plan is mainly one of surveillance. If we start to see avian influenza in birds here, that will be our first alert. USDA will step in and stamp it out in infected poultry by killing the birds. If people report sick or dead wild birds, we will test to see what they have, where it came from, how far the spread has been and if there have been any introductions into areas of concern. The areas of particular concern for us are the Nature Center, the Bio-Park, the Rio Grande Zoo and Bosque del Apache because of the concentrations of birds in these areas,” Dr. DiMenna says.
No one knows when, or if, bird flu will arrive. It could be as early as this fall’s migration or two years from now. It only takes two to three weeks for the birds to travel down the flyway to here so it is necessary that these plans be in place now.
What precautions can you take if you keep birds or have backyard bird feeders?
“Backyard bird feeders don’t pose much of a problem,” Dr. DiMenna says. “There is more concern about people going to locations with wild birds or waterfowl, such as Tingley Beach in Albuquerque. We wouldn’t want people swimming in the same water as infected birds. If we believe an area is contaminated, we will keep people out of the area.”
If you keep a small flock of chickens, there is no cause for concern now. Dr. DiMenna says, “If we find infection, the birds can be raised indoors and isolated, which is what they are doing in Europe. But people should be making plans now to isolate their birds from wild birds.”
Cockfighting is one potential risk area. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish is concerned that the people involved in cockfighting are at high risk for contracting avian flu. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish didn’t return our calls, but Dr. DiMenna says they are considering asking the people involved in cockfighting to report sick or dead birds with no penalty. “The birds aren’t registered, and it’s a way for foreign birds to be moved without being tested or tracked,” Dr. DiMenna said. Some of the practices associated with cockfighting could transmit the virus. A person at the cockfight sucks the bird’s nasal lining to remove mucus. That person would be at high risk of catching bird flu if the bird were infected.
The avian influenza prognosis is uncertain at the moment. “There certainly is no cause for concern at this point. There is a lot of planning going on,” says Dr. DiMenna. “It will become a severe issue if it turns into a human pandemic and it will have bad results for birds who are already on the endangered list, as they may be wiped out.”
AVIAN FLU SAFETY TIPS FOR PEOPLE AND PETS
· Check on the current news about bird flu. Some sites you can check are:
www.nmbirdflu.org (Information on New Mexico)
www.cdc.gov (Center for Disease Control)
www.who.int (World Health Organization)
www.usda.gov (United States Department of Agriculture)
www.nih.gov (National Institutes of Health)
· Use good personal hygiene by regularly washing your hands with soap and water. Cover your nose and mouth if you sneeze or cough.
· Be prepared for a pandemic or disaster by having supplies and a plan.
· Keep cats indoors so they do not catch or eat wild birds. Cats can get H5N1 from eating infected birds.
· Do not feed cats raw chicken. Thoroughly cooking the meat kills possible infection.
· If you find a sick or dead stray cat, report it to your veterinarian, animal control or the local health department.
· If your cat shows signs of nasal discharge or respiratory distress, take him to the veterinarian.
· When dogs are outside keep them on a leash.
· Don’t let dogs pick up dead birds or come in contact with poultry or wild birds.
· It is not known whether dogs can get the H5N1 virus but it is wise to take precautions.
· Do not allow pet birds to have any contact with wild birds or their feces.
· Keep pet birds inside.
· Make sure that anyone who cares for your bird has clean hands.
· Do not introduce new birds into your household unless they have been quarantined and tested for bird flu.
· Wear gloves when you clean the bird bath or refill the feeder.
· Wash your hands when you are finished.
· Keep children and pets away from the bird bath and bird feeder.
If you find a sick or dead bird, call the following to report it.
New Mexico Livestock Board 505-841-6161
USDA Veterinary Services 1-866-536-7593
New Mexico Department of Game and Fish 505-476-8000
USDA Wildlife Services 1-866-4-USDA-WS (1-866-487-3297)
(Based on information from Humane Society of the United States and New Mexico Avian Flu Information www.nmbirdflu.org/outbreak_information)
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