June 20, 2006

US lacks surveillance for bird flu in poultry: USDA

By Christopher Doering

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States does not have
adequate measures in place to survey and monitor for avian
influenza, including the deadly H5N1 strain that has killed 130
people overseas, the Agriculture Department's inspector general
said on Tuesday.

In a 38-page report, the inspector general said USDA relies
too heavily on voluntary state and commercial programs to
monitor and test domestic and wild birds.

The voluntary reporting makes it difficult for USDA's
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to draw conclusions,
know how much surveillance is taking place in different states
and uncover changes in the disease such as rate of prevalence.

APHIS officials later told the inspector general that the
agency had only recently received adequate funding to bolster
its surveillance program and was working to increase monitoring
in areas where it was needed most.

The review of the department's avian influenza response
plan was conducted before late December when USDA received $91
million in supplemental funding from Congress with much of it
going toward its surveillance program.

"Since that time we've been working to ensure that we've
been using those funds for the most critical aspects of avian
influenza surveillance and emergency preparedness and
response," said Karen Eggert, an APHIS spokeswoman.

"We've reached consensus with (the inspector general) on
the items we need to take action on," she added.

The H5N1 bird flu strain is known to have killed 130 people
and forced more than 200 million birds worldwide to be
destroyed. H5N1 has remained largely an infection of birds as
it has spread through Asia, Europe and parts of Africa.

In a management alert issued in December, the inspector
general said APHIS should implement a comprehensive bird flu
plan and provide details of how and when the system being
developed will be completed.

It also proposed USDA determine how it would handle a
high-pathogenic strain found in live bird markets or other
off-farm establishments and the process it would use to obtain
and administer vaccines and anti-virals to people involved in
culling of birds after an outbreak has occurred.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the top Democrat on the Agriculture
Committee, said the audit was further proof USDA was not
prepared for an outbreak of avian influenza.

"This report reiterates my concerns about USDA's
preparedness plans in the event of a potential avian influenza
outbreak, especially if a strain like H5N1 is found in the
United States," said Harkin. "The federal government continues
to push the responsibility of finding and responding to a
possible outbreak of avian influenza on states."