051013 Confinement Operations Pose Little Risk for Avian Flu

October 22, 2005

Decorah, IA - When a meat processor last spring proposed building a confinement facility to house a quarter-million chickens in a nearby township, residents packed county hearings to oppose the project.

Among their concerns, critics asserted the facility would increase residents' risk of catching avian flu. A deadly strain of the virus since 2003 has killed millions of domestic birds and 60 people in Southeast Asia.

Agriculture and public health experts, though, say the state's large poultry population doesn't put Iowans at greater odds for infection. Vastly different production methods employed in the state compared to Asia make spread of the virus less likely.

"The additional risk to humans ... from having an egg production facility in the community is negligible," said Darrell Trampel, an Iowa State University Extension poultry specialist in an e-mail interview.

Iowa is the top egg-producing state in the country, with more than 42 million laying hens in production. An avian flu outbreak could severely impact the industry, but Iowa's birds are not at a high risk, Trampel said.

Avian or bird flu is commonly found in wild waterfowl, which usually don't show symptoms. But the virus kills domestic birds and, on rare occasions, infects people. Scientists worry a particularly deadly strain called H5N1 could mutate and spread from person to person.

The strain originated in Southeast Asia. Cultural practices in that region, experts say, make transmission of the disease from birds to humans easier. Much of the poultry industry consists of small, backyard flocks, and people walk through their feedlots. Some live with birds as pets. Animals are frequently sold at live markets, suspected of being hubs for spreading the virus.

"You've got a huge mixing pot," said Kevin Vinchattle, director of the Iowa Poultry Association.

In Iowa, on the other hand, domestic birds have little exposure to other birds or people. Nearly all commercial chicken and turkey in Iowa are raised indoors, according to the Iowa Farm Bureau. Vinchattle said the reason farmers moved animals indoors in the first place was to prevent the spread of disease.

"When any virus shows up in a commercial poultry facility, the flock is almost inevitably depopulated. They're wiped out," said Sam Beattie, food safety specialist for ISU Extension. But the chance for exposing people or other flocks to the virus is slight.

David Suarez studies emerging avian viruses for the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory in Athens, Ga. He says Minnesota turkey farmers offer the best evidence that confinement facilities prevent disease. In the 1980s, the industry suffered outbreaks of a mild avian flu whenever ducks migrated from Canada and mingled with range birds. In the late 1990s, the industry moved turkeys indoors and the outbreaks stopped.

And because Iowa isn't the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the state has less landscape to attract migratory waterfowl, Trampel said.

Trampel also said has better monitoring systems to track the disease. In September 2003, the Iowa mandated avian flu testing for turkey and chicken farms.

While mild strains occasionally occur, authorities are confident the dangerous H5N1 variety isn't in the state, or the continent, for that matter.


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