March 20, 2006

US gov’t sees bird flu likely in US this year

By Tom Doggett and Sophie Walker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Bush administration officials said
on Monday it was "increasingly likely" that bird flu could be
detected in the United States this year, but added it may not
mean the start of a human pandemic.

Speaking to reporters, Interior Secretary Gale Norton,
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and Secretary of Health and
Human Services Michael Leavitt unveiled a plan to increase
monitoring of migratory birds that are likely to bring the bird
flu virus to U.S. shores.

"It is increasingly likely that we will detect the highly
pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian flu in birds within the U.S.
borders possibly as early as this year," Norton said.

As a result, the government is expanding its early warning
system to deal with bird flu's eventual arrival.

"None of us can build a cage around the United States. We
have to be prepared to deal with the virus here," Johanns said.

The H5N1 avian flu virus has spread across Europe, Africa
and parts of Asia and killed at least 98 people worldwide since
2003. So far, it has a mortality rate of about 50 percent.

Although bird flu is hard to catch, people can contract the
disease by coming into contact with infected birds, especially
from bird droppings.

Scientists are concerned that the virus could develop the
ability to transmit easily from person to person and trigger a
worldwide pandemic which could kill millions.

Norton said the early detection plan would prioritize
sampling in Alaska, where scientists believe the strain of
highly pathogenic H5N1 virus currently affecting Southeast Asia
would most likely spread to North America by migrating birds.

The government's expanded testing program will focus on
Alaska, elsewhere in the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds and
the Pacific islands, followed by the Central, Mississippi and
Atlantic Flyways.

The Agriculture Department plans to collect between 75,000
and 100,000 samples from live and dead wild birds this year.
Another 50,000 samples of water or feces from high-risk
waterfowl habitats across the United States will also be

Norton said she expected initial, so-called presumptive
H5N1 results could be announced some 20 to 100 times this year
but those first tests would not tell whether the virus was the
deadly strain or a weaker form.

Discovery of bird flu in the United States should not be
reason to panic, Johanns said, noting that positive test
results could turn out to be a harmless version of the virus.

The United States has dealt three times previously -- in
1924, 1983 and 2004 -- with outbreaks in domestic poultry of
other forms of bird flu.

Should U.S. domestic poultry become infected with the
high-pathogen H5N1, the Agriculture Department would act
quickly to quarantine an affected area and destroy the infected
flock, he said.

"Our producers have demonstrated that they will call us at
the first sign of sick birds, knowing that with high-pathogen
strains of bird flu we reimburse them for the birds that we
destroy," Johanns said.

"This is a $29 billion industry in the U.S. and our
producers are as eager as we are to protect the safety of our

Poultry properly prepared would be safe to eat, because
cooking kills the virus, the officials said.

While the federal government is stockpiling medicines and
making other preparations, it is important for state and local
governments, hospitals, businesses and schools to formulate
their own plans, Leavitt said.

"Any community that fails to prepare, with the expectation
that the federal government will at the last moment be able to
come to the rescue, will be tragically wrong. There is no way
in which 5,000 different communities can be responded to
simultaneously," Leavitt said.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine)