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Politics & Government

PA Eyes Avian Flu Threat

Stewart Black

  Pennsylvania is bracing for a possible outbreak of what was once called the “fowl plague” – a highly contagious form of bird flu that devastated entire poultry flocks in the Midwest this spring.

The commonwealth saw severe cases of the bird flu in the 1980s. Since then, commercial poultry operations have become more complex, and keeping backyard hens is more popular –- as evidenced, perhaps, by a certain website purveying in rent-a-chickens.

But addressing a potential disease outbreak is always a challenge where birds are concerned.

“It’s difficult to know where birds are anywhere,” said Sam Kieffer, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau’s director of government affairs.

The avian flu poses a risk to all types of fowl.

"I just left a meeting this morning with the game bird industry," said Craig Shultz, the state veterinarian.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture received additional funding earlier this summer to help prepare for a possible outbreak and to spread the word about best practices. Shultz advised making chicken feed delivery workers wear plastic booties, getting rid of rodents, which can carry contaminants, and keeping backyard flocks from mingling with migratory birds.

“There’s only so much risk reduction,” Shultz said. “Everyone is really doing their very best to be prepared to respond.”

The virus doesn’t pose a direct threat to human health, he said, but is usually fatal to infected birds. The chief way to address it is to euthanize animals that may have been exposed, which could affect the availability of chicken and eggs.

“This is not a food safety situation whatsoever,” Shultz said. "But we’re certainly dealing with a food security problem.”