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Avian flu keeps poultry farms on high alert

To guard against avian flu, poultry industry leaders say they have ramped up security measures.
Poultry farmer David Conley stands next to a recently installed warning sign at his farm.
Poultry farmer David Conley stands next to a recently installed warning sign at his farm.Robert A. Reeder / The Washington Post
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There were 561 million chickens -- broilers, roasters and Cornish hens -- raised last year on the Delmarva Peninsula, or, looked at another way, 468 chickens for every person on the Eastern Shore. Some of the biggest names in chicken -- Perdue Farms, Tyson Foods -- operate here alongside 5,500 chicken houses in the $1.7 billion industry.

All of which makes the spread of avian flu in Asia more than just some vague fear about what's happening half a world away, and is why Jenny Rhodes won't let you on her farm.

"No admittance. Nobody goes down to the chicken houses unless it's ourselves or our serviceman," said Rhodes, who raises 80,000 chickens on her farm in Queen Anne's County, Md. "For us, biosecurity is something we deal with every day."

In recent years, poultry farmers on the Eastern Shore and in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley have been struck by outbreaks of avian flu -- albeit a less deadly strain than the one that has killed 140 million birds and 60 people in Asia in the past two years -- and industry leaders say they have ramped up security to protect their poultry.

Drive A drive through the fields of Queen Anne's County reveals signs on the low-slung chicken houses calling out the warning: "Restricted. No Admittance. Poultry Biosecurity in Place." Farmers change clothes before moving from their homes to their chicken houses. Their employees walk through disinfectant baths to kill germs on boots heading in and out. Farm supply stores spray the tires of feed trucks with bleach.

Agriculture officials are fitting poultry workers with protective suits and masks in case of an outbreak, and they are running simulations of how to respond if the virus spreads beyond state boundaries and -- the worst fear -- starts infecting people.

‘Remain vigilant’
"The situation that we're all concerned about is the possibility of a pandemic. There are reasons to be cautious about this and not ignore it," said Maryland state medical epidemiologist David Blythe, stressing that the risk is remote. "I think the Eastern Shore is probably further along than anywhere else in the country for preparation for this type of event . . . but we have to remain vigilant."

In the Washington region, bookended by two poultry-growing areas, these lessons have been hard won. An outbreak of avian flu in the Shenandoah Valley in 2002 meant 4 million turkeys and chickens had to be killed on 197 farms at a cost of $130 million to the industry, said Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation. One infected bird can prompt the slaughter of a farm's entire flock.

After a bird flu breakout last year on three commercial farms on the Eastern Shore -- two in Delaware and one in Maryland -- more than 30 countries banned imports of Delmarva chicken. The strain of flu found on the Eastern Shore did not harm humans -- it was known as a low-pathogenic variety -- and wasn't all that lethal to chickens, either, Maryland state veterinarian Guy Hohenhaus said.

"The disease doesn't destroy the industry. The reaction to the disease would destroy the industry," he said. "Nobody would want to buy Delmarva poultry."

To shift from a threat to birds to a threat to humans, the strain of influenza virus would have to undergo a genetic change. Researchers announced this week that the deadly strain in Asia appears to be slowly acquiring the type of genetic changes seen in the "Spanish flu" virus that killed 50 million people in the early 1900s.

Dangerous scenario
The scenario that officials want to avoid goes like this: A poultry farm worker with human flu comes in contact with a chicken infected with bird flu. Those two strains then mix to produce a third that could pass more easily among humans.

To minimize the chances of this happening, officials from the three states that share the Eastern Shore -- Maryland, Virginia and Delaware -- have worked to implement Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on a local level, said Sue duPont, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Those involve screening poultry workers for flu, fitting them for protective clothing for use during an outbreak and giving poultry workers top priority for flu vaccinations. The measures also keep the states communicating, duPont said.

"The disease knows no boundaries," she said, so the increased preparation after the previous outbreak "really puts us in a much better position. We all know each other already; we all know what to expect."

Farmers take further steps. Chickens generally come from a batch of eggs hatched at the same time, given the same vaccinations and moved to the chicken house at the same time. Then they move to the processing house at the same time, and the house is disinfected, Hohenhaus said.

The concern about avian flu on the Eastern Shore has not been limited to chicken health. The anti-flu drugs Tamiflu and Relenza, which once sat dusty on the shelves of Apple Discount Drugs in Salisbury, have sold at a rapid clip this year, owner and pharmacist Jeff Sherr said.

"It's probably a tenfold increase," he said. "In the past . . . we just didn't really dispense much. I think people are looking at it prophylactically now."

For David Conley, 53, a farmer from Centreville, Md., who raises 52,000 chickens in two long houses for Perdue, the precautions against avian flu come with the territory. He'll tell all about the disinfectant foot baths, chicken house cleanings and his fear about the devastation to the industry. But don't expect to see his efforts.

"If you're not in direct contact with Perdue Farms, you don't enter my houses," he said.