Virus would deal blow to poultry farmers

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 15, 2006

A Department of Public Health seminar held in Greenville on preparation for a possible flu pandemic brought out hospital personnel, county officials, and area farmers concerned about the effects of avian bird flu on Alabama's poultry industry.

State Veterinarian Dr. Anthony Frazier told those assembled on Thursday at the Greenville Butler County Public Library that the arrival of the avian bird flu virus in Alabama could signal a downward spiral for the state's economy.

A 2003 study in Alabama Poultry Monthly indicated that the state could lose approximately $50 million per week in the event of a severe bird flu epidemic like the one that is currently affecting parts of Asia and Europe.

&#8220Avian influenza in Alabama could have a tremendous negative impact on the poultry industry in Butler County and the state,” said Frazier. &#8220Poultry in Alabama is a multi-billion dollar industry.”

While the seminar served as a starting point for county administrators in planning for a pandemic - if the bird flu mutates to a virus easily transmitted from human to human - Frazier educated attendees on what the Alabama Department of Agriculture is doing to combat the eventual arrival of avian influenza in the U.S. As birds migrate, so the do the viruses they carry.

Frazier said selected culled chickens in farms are tested daily for strains of bird flu. Isolation, he said, is the cure to stopping the spread of the disease.

He reiterated that the current strain of bird flu is only contagious to wild and domesticated birds, such as chickens, turkeys and ducks.

&#8220In many virus' history, though, the problem is we see them infecting birds, then infecting humans,” he said. &#8220For any virus to crossover to another species is a very rare event, but this virus has done that.”

And the alarming news, said Frazier, is that scientists recently discovered the 1918 &#8220Spanish Flu” pandemic traversed a similar mutation path that avian influenza is following. It made the genetic jump from birds to humans and arrived in Alabama in September of that year. Three weeks later 25,000 cases had been reported.

In October 1918, officials in Huntsville reported a city on the verge of complete shutdown. The postal service was crippled and entire businesses closed, while every physician and druggist in the city was sick with the flu, except one.

Officials estimate that a modern pandemic in Alabama could kill anywhere from 3,135 to 28,545 people in the state, according to the Department of Public Health. Up to 148,000 could be hospitalized and 675,000 could require outpatient care.

The problem with any new strain of virus, said Ricky Elliot, Public Health Environmentalist with the ADPH, is the public has little to no immunity to it.

Elliot said city and county administrators, hospitals, schools, businesses and families need to prepare for a pandemic, but not panic.

&#8220You have to plan for the worst case scenario and then pray for the best,” he said.