Don't sleep with your chickens

WASHINGTON, Oct 5 - U.S. preparations against a possible outbreak of the deadly form of the H5N1 avian flu virus are solid, but other countries may not be as ready, a U.S. health safety official warned on Thursday.

"We're ... close to the state-of-the-art in the United States with preparations and strong biosecurity measures," said Ambassador John Lange, the State Department's special representative on avian and pandemic influenza.

But abroad, "it's a mixed bag," Lange said during a meeting of poultry industry leaders in Washington.

The United States is spending $392 million over two years, Lange said, to help other countries prepare for a possible human outbreak of the disease, known as bird flu.

U.S. support has included sending experts and laboratory equipment to other nations, he said.

The H5N1 avian flu virus has killed at least 148 people since 2003, mostly in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and China. Currently, the disease almost exclusively affects birds although health officials fear that it could mutate and be passed easily between humans.

Lange said it was especially challenging for poor countries to gird for an outbreak because they don't have resources for sufficient surveillance, culling, and vaccinations.

Sherrill Davison, director of an avian medicine and pathology laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, detailed to industry officials ongoing testing of U.S. bird flocks and other surveillance and safety procedures.

"Over the years our diagnostics have become quicker ... we know that they work," she said.

She said poultry companies and agriculture officials were now working with law enforcement and emergency coordinators to plan a response to a possible outbreak.

In any suspicious case, Davison said, bird flocks would be quarantined and could be killed and buried on-site.

Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety, said consumers' fears about getting bird flu from eating eggs and chicken need to be allayed.

Because the virus is normally transmitted by contact with live animals, not by handling or cooking poultry, he pointed to a Nigerian proverb as the best advice: "Don't sleep with your chickens."


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