By Jen Degregorio and Zenitha Prince
WASHINGTON – Agriculture officials moved Wednesday to keep access to Maryland farms at a minimum, in an effort to keep the bird flu that broke out on two Delaware farms in the last week from spreading.
“The Delmarva poultry industry does not operate within the confines of state borders and we are treating the outbreak of avian influenza in Delaware as a Delmarva issue,” Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley said Wednesday in a prepared statement.
The bird flu can be easily carried from farm to farm, officials said, by manure stuck to shoes or other mobile sources, such as farm vehicles.
For that reason, Maryland officials asked farmers to cancel live-poultry sales, halt sales of farm equipment on the Eastern Shore and limit access to farms as much as possible. The state Agriculture Department also canceled all on-farm services, such as manure transport, as well as meetings with farmers and growers for the next 30 days.
Maryland farmers have also been advised to watch chickens for any signs of the bird flu — feather ruffling, sneezing and depression — and to test them for the flu 72 hours before they are sent to the slaughterhouse for processing.
The Delmarva Emergency Poultry Disease Task Force — which includes poultry companies, epidemiologists, agriculture and health officials from the federal government and the states of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia — will begin tests today on chickens from farms within six miles of the flu sites.
Nathaniel Tablante, a poultry veterinarian with Maryland’s extension service who will help perform the tests, said the H7 strain of avian flu found in Delaware does not pose any danger to human health. But people are still nervous because of the human deaths in Asia associated with a separate strain of the flu, the H5N1 strain that is currently plaguing farms there.
“The term ‘bird flu’ arouses fear and that’s the main threat to the poultry industry,” Tablante said. “You never know.”
Officials said at a news conference Wednesday that a bird-flu vaccine exists, but they are wary of its effects on chickens so they will continue to slaughter birds as a precaution unless the virus’ behavior changes. So far, 84,000 birds have been killed since the virus was first discovered Friday.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich said the state will contribute any resources necessary to stop the flu.
“Poultry is Maryland’s top agricultural industry and critical to the economy, especially in communities on the Eastern Shore,” he said in a prepared statement.
Poultry accounted for 31 percent of Maryland’s $1.4 billion farm industry in 2002, the state Agriculture Department said. It said there are more than 1,600 poultry farms in Maryland, and more than 60 percent of the state’s cropland is dedicated to grains for poultry feed.
Avian flu outbreaks have the potential to do serious harm to that industry: Tablante said an outbreak of pathogenic avian influenza in Pennsylvania, which was different from the current strain, devastated the poultry industry in 1983 and 1984.
Although the current strain is far less dangerous than the flu of 1983-84, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong this week banned all U.S. poultry imports.
Tablante said that since the Pennsylvania outbreak, officials have developed much better ways of handling outbreaks, such as “in-house composting” of carcasses and slaughtering birds on site instead of moving them for slaughter, which could spread the virus.
“I think there’s a good chance that they have finally isolated the disease,” he said.
-30- CNS 02-11-04