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Poultry experts treat avian influenza as foregone conclusion
sick chickens
Dr. David Swayne of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, left, answers a question during the Avian Influenza Poultry Preparedness Briefing question and answer session at the Georgia Mountain Center in Gainesville, Ga., Tuesday Dec. 12, 2006. Next to him are Dr. Stan Crane, with the State Agriculture Response Team and panel moderator, Dr. Lee Myers. - photo by Associated Press
GAINESVILLE, Ga. — The dreaded avian influenza outbreak has yet to strike the U.S., but here in one of the nation’s leading poultry producing regions they talk as if it already has.
    Poultry farmers boast of the latest extermination foams and decontamination trucks waiting to be dispatched to infected sites. A chicken lobbying group, the Georgia Poultry Federation, talks of the volley of press releases it has prepared to remind American consumers that cooked chicken and eggs are still safe to eat.
    A state veterinarian even notes that Georgia’s agricultural response team, which would be in charge of quarantines in an outbreak, is rethinking its method of disposing of infected carcasses. Incineration is preferred to mass burial, Stan Crane told a room full of poultry experts Tuesday at a bird flu briefing.
    Federal officials and state agricultural leaders called the meeting to warn chicken farmers in Georgia, the nation’s leading poultry producing state, to stay vigilant despite even though the H5N1 virus has not yet been spotted in the U.S.
    ‘‘We must always keep our guard up, always look for it,’’ said David Swayne, the director of the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory.
    Health officials worry that the virus could spark a pandemic if it mutates into a new strain that could be easily transmitted among people. At least 154 people have been killed by the virus, which was once contained in Southeast Asia but has spread to Europe and Africa.
    The virus strikes fear among poultry farmers in the U.S., which produces more than 35 billion pounds of poultry a year. Many producers have taken extreme precautions, outfitting visitors with biohazard suits and disinfecting shoes and tires entering the vicinity of each chicken coop.
    Although the deadly virus has not infected a human in the U.S., officials have detected a low-grade strain of the virus in wild birds in Pennsylvania and elsewhere that poses no threat to people.
    To thwart the spread of the virus, federal authorities have restricted poultry imports from high-risk countries, stepped up efforts to test wild birds and have urged each state to develop its own emergency response plan in case the disease strikes.
    In Georgia, the plan calls for a 4-mile-wide zone around any contaminated area to quarantine all chickens and equipment. Veterinarians would carefully monitor for signs of the disease nearby and the state would likely restrict movement and trade to the area, said Lee Myers, the state’s top veterinarian.
    ‘‘We’re planning for the worst,’’ she said, ‘‘and hoping for the best.’’
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