Special Report: Bird Flu: Are we prepared? - WALB.com, South Georgia News, Weather, Sports

Special Report: Bird Flu: Are we prepared?

March 1, 2006

Albany-- It's been found in Asia, Europe and the Middle East but what are the chances that Bird flu might make it to Georgia? The World Health Organization reports only about 100 human deaths so far but they worry bird flu could turn into a pandemic that kills millions if we're not prepared. What's being done to keep you and your food safe?

Georgia is the country's top poultry producer. The chicken industry now has more procedures in place to keep us safe and from the farm to the production plant to the health department, they all say they're prepared to protect Georgians from the threat of bird flu.

We've all seen the headlines. "Bird Flu Spreads in Nigeria", "Human Bird Flu Cases Rise", "Majority of US is Worried About Bird Flu" but is that worry warranted?

"I think it is a point of concern, yes," says Southwest Georgia Public Health Emergency Preparedness Director Julie Miller.

The United States produces nearly 100 percent of the chicken consumed in the nation. The state of Georgia leads the way. It's big production that begins on small farms across the state. Willie Cooper has been a chicken farmer for about 25 years. He says it's not a hard job but it's 24 hours, 7 days a week.

"You gotta know what you're doing," says Cooper. Cooper gets the chickens the same day they're hatched and takes care of them for about 7 weeks. He's had many discussions about the threat of bird flu.

"I take the position if it's coming, it's coming," says Cooper. But he does the best he can to make sure it doesn't reach Georgia especially with thousands of chickens in his care. "Presently we have about 23,000 per house," says Cooper. 23,000 birds are a lot to take care of so of course standard safety precautions are in place but the National Chicken Council has increased those precautions.

"Every flock is being tested. There's 100 percent testing," says corporate veterinarian for Sanderson Farms Dr. Phil Stayer. Before, chicken flocks were only tested if they showed signs of respiratory disease. Now, all flocks are tested. "We'll take a blood sample within two weeks of slaughter and we'll send it to a state diagnostic laboratory so it's a third party doing the testing," says Stayer.

The labs then send those results back before slaughter whether the results are negative or positive. "So far it's been all negative so it's a good thing," says Stayer. A bird may test positive for two types of bird flu, H5 or H7. "Once we found one of those two, we'd have to get the federal government involved. There would be a lockdown. Those birds would not go anywhere, restricted traffic on and off the farm," says Stayer.

The whole flock would then be destroyed on site, therefore never reaching your table. "Here in South Georgia, we're killing about 600,000 birds a week and all those birds are coming from negative farms," says Stayer.

Stayer says it's important to make a distinction between Asian and Avian influenza. "What's in Asia has never been isolated over here. That being said, it's moved further west. It's in Africa now and central Europe but its never been in the United States."

 The victims in other countries didn't get sick from eating chickens. They were around the sick animals, some exposed to wild birds. "Our whole production in the United States is nothing like that. Our people have large amounts of chicken in confined space and don't have exposure to outside wildlife," says Stayer.

Georgia growers also don't do their own killing and cleaning. They're sent to a processing plant where it's done mechanically. "We don't have the same intimate contact that those folks in Asia and Africa would have with their chickens," says Stayer.

However, there was an avian flu case found in another state. "In 2004 in Texas, not our group, but there was avian influenza that was controlled. They found it on a routine test. They euthanized those birds and contained it, didn't go anywhere," says Stayer.

But what if it came here? Health officials say a threat anywhere is a threat everywhere and a pandemic could encircle the globe within three months. "There will be a pandemic at some time in the future. When that will be we do not know," says Miller. That could be anything including bird flu. Emergency Preparedness Director Julie Miller says the health community is constantly working to prepare for any potential outbreak.

"Which has to do with surveillance. Your doctors, hospitals and your public health officials watch for those things that are unusual," says Miller.

So are health officials here in South Georgia prepared for a bird flu outbreak? "Are we prepared? I think that we are. Can you ever be completely prepared or is there a such thing as being prepared enough? I do not think so," says Miller. There isn't a sure fire cure for the flu either.

"There are no vaccines currently," says Miller. Miller says a manufacturing process is taking place. Also, they've built into their emergency plan the use of anti-virals. "If there is an outbreak, if there is a need for mass dispensing of drugs, then the anti-virals become a part that we become concerned about, making sure that people can have something to assist," says Miller.

"If you take care of the chickens, they don't get sick," says Stayer.

The precautions begin with the chickens and it's a team effort on all state and local levels to keep us safe from disease and sickness. "Trying to plan for some of the things we have not seen," says Miller.

"The whole nation has done this so we've all marched forward together," says Stayer. Together, they continue to work in the background. They say there's no need for Georgians to worry. "If I get worried and say 'Lord have mercy, I'm gonna catch that flu', I know that's going to resonate through the family so I just go do my job everyday and hope for the best," says Cooper.

With previous and new safety precautions, the bird situation is under control.

The US Department of Agriculture also has inspectors in every chicken processing plant. They inspect birds before and after processing. Health officials also remind you to protect yourself from disease by washing your hands with soapy water, covering your mouth when you cough and cooking food correctly.

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