Penn responds to avian flu threat


Researchers at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine have been hot on the trail of the bird flu virus for years.

For 23 years, to be precise. According to Sherrill Davison, associate professor of avian medicine and pathology epidemiology at the vet school, Penn was prompted to get involved in 1983 when the state experienced an outbreak of avian influenza (different from the H5N1 that we see today).

Today, Penn cooperates with the poultry industry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Health Department and the Penn Animal Diagnostic Lab System, which consists of three labs across the state—one here at the University, another in Harrisburg and the third at Penn State—to prepare for and fight against outbreaks. Scientists check samples from every flock of domestic birds on a monthly basis in a voluntary surveillance program. Penn teams also take swabs in the field and use new molecular techniques that can isolate the virus within hours.

There is also a new program in place to give broiler birds, or edible chickens, an additional level of surveillance.

Biosecurity measures that have been around for 20 years also ensure the safety of the state’s bird population. Such precautions include keeping doors locked on poultry houses, making sure poultry are housed in enclosed areas and requiring people who come into contact with the flocks to wear boots, hats and coveralls over their clothing.

Penn’s response to avian flu has been accelerated by the advent of geographic information systems (GIS), which were first used in 1998. Before GIS was in place, Davison says, crews had to drive around the area of an outbreak and visually identify other poultry houses in the area. Through a Department of Agriculture grant and with the cooperation of industry, Penn began compiling a confidential database of poultry farms in Pennsylvania. Currently, there are about 1,300 farms in the database.

“With everyone cooperating, with everyone having these new tools,” says Davison, “we’re able to have the early detection and rapid response.”

This rapid response is obviously a very good thing, since eradicating avian flu before GIS cost the state a bundle. In 1997, just before GIS was in place, bird flu broke out in Lancaster County. Even with the control and response plan, it still cost $3.5 million to get the virus under control.

When bird flu hit State College in 2001—this time with GIS in place—the cost was a mere $400,000. Experts were able to quickly identify and isolate the inflected flocks. Davison assures the nervous that Pennsylvania is well prepared for the H5N1 strain of avian flu, should it come to this country. But don’t look for it to touch down in the Northeast—at least not any time soon.

“The area that we’re concerned about is the wild bird population in [Alaska],” she says. “That’s where the scientists believe the crossover in wild birds will occur.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies plan to step up their screening programs significantly this year.

If bird flu does infect poultry flocks, Davison says it’s the policy of the state and the country to eradicate the disease. “Those birds would be destroyed very quickly.”

“This is not a food safety issue,” Davison adds, because all flocks are checked. Even if it did enter the food chain, “normal handling and cooking would kill the virus. What we’ve seen in areas where people have become infected … it really is handling of poultry outside of just normal handling.”

Plus, the U.S. does not import poultry, so there’s no risk of infecting domestic flocks that way. “We have an excellent surveillance program in place,” assures Davison. “We have excellent cooperation between the lab system, the industry, the USDA and the Health Department. We are prepared.”

Originally published on March 16, 2006