States enlist prisoners, plan biosecurity to combat avian flu threat

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Why the U.S. Is Killing Millions of Chickens

Indiana is training 300 prisoners to kill infected chickens and banning bird shows at county fairs. Mississippi is considering road barricades and planning biosecurity measures. Iowa is trying to figure out how to deal with a mountain of dead - and reeking - chickens.

Federal health experts are hopeful that the virulent bird flu that has devastated Midwestern poultry farms in recent months has reached its peak and will taper off as the weather warms. But worried state officials aren't taking chances.

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States enlist prisoners, plan biosecurity to combat avian flu threat
This undated handout image provided by Science and the University of Tokyo shows infectious particles of the avian H7N9 virus emerging from a cell. Scientists who sparked an outcry by creating easier-to-spread versions of the bird flu want to try such experiments again using a worrisome new strain. Since it broke out in China in March, the H7N9 bird flu has infected more than 130 people and killed 43. Leading flu researchers say that genetically engineering this virus in the lab could help track whether itâs changing in the wild to become a bigger threat. They announced the pending plans Wednesday in letters to the journals Science and Nature. (AP Photo/Takeshi Noda/University of Tokyo, Science)
Thomas 'Tom' Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), speaks during an interview in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, June 8, 2015. Government spending to fight the worst U.S. bird flu outbreak and compensate farmers for their losses will exceed the $410 million so far budgeted and may top a half-billion dollars, Vilsack said. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2009 file photo, chickens stand in their cages at a farm near Stuart, Iowa. Discovery of the bird flu on an Iowa turkey farm has raised serious concerns that the bird killer could find its way into chicken barns in the nation’s top egg-producing state and rapidly decimate the flocks that provide the U.S. with its breakfast staple. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
Workers in protective clothing work at the Daybreak Foods Inc. hen farm in Jefferson County near Lake Mills, Wis., Friday, April 24, 2015. There are two avian flu outbreaks in Jefferson county. The virus is lethal to birds, but is not expected to be a risk to people or the food supply. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
Workers in protective clothing work at a hen farm in Jefferson County near Lake Mills, Wis., Friday, April 24, 2015. There are two avian flu outbreaks in Jefferson county. The virus is lethal to birds, but is not expected to be a risk to people or the food supply. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
Workers in protective clothing work at the Daybreak Foods Inc. hen farm in Jefferson County near Lake Mills, Wis., Friday, April 24, 2015. There are two avian flu outbreaks in Jefferson county. The virus is lethal to birds, but is not expected to be a risk to people or the food supply. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
Indian workers spread disinfectant after an operation to cull chickens at Venkateshwara Hatcheries in Thoroor village in Ranga Reddy district, some 55 kilometers from Hyderabad on April 15, 2015. Five chicks were found to be infected with H5N1 avian influenza on regular testing of samples belonging to the farm of a poultry farmer Srinivas Reddy. The authorities ordered the culling of 150,000 birds in a kilometre radius on poultry farms, although no cases of human infections were identified so far, according to Ranga Reddy district officials. AFP PHOTO / Noah SEELAM (Photo credit should read NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian workers spread disinfectant after an operation to cull chickens at Venkateshwara Hatcheries in Thoroor village in Ranga Reddy district, some 55 kilometers from Hyderabad on April 15, 2015. Five chicks were found to be infected with H5N1 avian influenza on regular testing of samples belonging to the farm of a poultry farmer Srinivas Reddy. The authorities ordered the culling of 150,000 birds in a kilometre radius on poultry farms, although no cases of human infections were identified so far, according to Ranga Reddy district officials. AFP PHOTO / Noah SEELAM (Photo credit should read NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian health workers dump bags of dead chickens after a culling operation at Venkateshwara Hatcheries in Thoroor village in Ranga Reddy district, some 55 kilometers from Hyderabad on April 15, 2015. Five chicks were found to be infected with H5N1 avian influenza on regular testing of samples belonging to the farm of a poultry farmer Srinivas Reddy. The authorities ordered the culling of 150,000 birds in a kilometre radius on poultry farms, although no cases of human infections were identified so far, according to Ranga Reddy district officials. AFP PHOTO / Noah SEELAM (Photo credit should read NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian health workers carry dead chickens in bags after a culling operation at Venkateshwara Hatcheries in Thoroor village in Ranga Reddy district, some 55 kilometers from Hyderabad on April 15, 2015. Five chicks were found to be infected with H5N1 avian influenza on regular testing of samples belonging to the farm of a poultry farmer Srinivas Reddy. The authorities ordered the culling of 150,000 birds in a kilometre radius on poultry farms, although no cases of human infections were identified so far, according to Ranga Reddy district officials. AFP PHOTO / Noah SEELAM (Photo credit should read NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)
Dead chicken, right, lie at a poultry farm in Katmandu, Nepal, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013. A Nepalese official said the government has banned the sale and transport of chicken and all poultry products in the capital city to prevent the spread of the H5N1 bird flu virus. Agriculture Ministry spokesman Prabhakar Pathak said Thursday that the virus has been detected in several poultry farms in Katmandu and surrounding areas. No human casualties have been reported. (AP Photo/Bikram Rai)
In this April 13, 2014 photo provided by Kumamoto Prefecture, chickens are seen at a farm where H5 virus was detected in two birds on Sunday, in Taragicho, western Japan. The 112,000 chickens were ordered culled on Monday, April 14 after the two tested positive for a highly pathogenic avian influenza in the town. (AP Photo/Kumamoto Prefecture)
In this Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014 photo, live chickens are kept in a cage at a wholesale poultry market in Shanghai. A spate of bird flu cases since the beginning of the year in China has experts watching closely as millions of people and poultry are on the move ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, the world's largest annual human migration. (AP Photo)
Ans Hermans throws her chickens in their air, releasing them after more than two months indoors, in Nunhem, south east Netherlands, Monday, May 1, 2006. The Netherlands' Agriculture Ministry lifted an order keeping all domestic poultry indoors, as fears over an outbreak of birdflu eased. (AP Photo/ Ermindo Armino)
Hens are seen inside a chicken farm in Baexem, south-east Netherlands, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2006. After two dead swans in neighbouring Germany had been preliminarily tested positive for the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain, the Dutch agriculture ministry Wednesday urged commercial poultry farmers to get their birds indoors as soon as possible as a protective measure to prevent an outbreak of bird flu. (AP Photo/John Peters)
Poultry farmer Vermeij feeds his chickens inside his chicken farm in Baexem, south-east Netherlands, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2006. After two dead swans in neighbouring Germany had been preliminarily tested positive for the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain, the Dutch agriculture ministry Wednesday urged commercial poultry farmers to get their birds indoors as soon as possible as a protective measure to prevent an outbreak of bird flu. (AP Photo/John Peters)
Ans Hermans throws her chicken in the air, releasing it after more than two months indoors, in Nunhem, south east Netherlands, Monday, May 1, 2006. The Netherlands' Agriculture Ministry lifted an order keeping all domestic poultry indoors, as fears over an outbreak of birdflu eased. (AP Photo/ Ermindo Armino)
Hens are seen inside a chicken farm in Baexem, south-east Netherlands, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2006. After two dead swans in neighbouring Germany had been preliminarily tested positive for the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain, the Dutch agriculture ministry Wednesday urged commercial poultry farmers to get their birds indoors as soon as possible as a protective measure to prevent an outbreak of bird flu. (AP Photo/John Peters)
A shelduck receives vaccination against Bird Flu at Blijdorp Zoo in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2005. The zoo is believed to be the first in Europe to begin inoculation against the H5 strains of bird virus, including the H5N1 strain that has swept through flocks and killed at least 69 people since 2003. (AP Photo/Fred Ernst)
Hens are seen inside a chicken farm in Baexem, south-east Netherlands, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2006. After two dead swans in neighbouring Germany had been preliminarily tested positive for the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain, the Dutch agriculture ministry Wednesday urged commercial poultry farmers to get their birds indoors as soon as possible as a protective measure to prevent an outbreak of bird flu. (AP Photo/John Peters)
Dutch State Secretary Henk Bleker (C) puts on a mask during a visit to a turkey farm affected by a bout of the bird flu virus in Kelpen-Oler on March 19, 2012. All 42,700 turkeys at the farm will be slaughtered. AFP PHOTO / ANP MARCEL VAN HOORN netherlands out (Photo credit should read MARCEL VAN HOORN/AFP/Getty Images)
Chart shows the number of bird’s with bird flu since March; 2c x 3 inches; 96.3 mm x 76 mm;
This photo provided by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources shows chickens in a trench on a farm in northwest Iowa. Millions of dead chickens and turkeys are decomposing in fly-swarmed piles near dozens of Iowa farms, culled because of a bird flu virus that swept through the state's large poultry operations. (Iowa Department of Natural Resources via AP)
EAGLE GROVE, IA - MAY 17: A gate blocks the entrance of a farm operated by Daybreak Foods which has been designated 'bio security area' on May 17, 2015 near Eagle Grove, Iowa. Daybreak Foods is one of several large-scale commercial poultry facilities is Iowa reported to have been hit with a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza which has forced poultry producers to kill off millions of birds in an attempt to stifle the spread of the illness. A road leading up to the front of the farm has been closed to outside traffic with a checkpoint established. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Nick Wells puts eggs in a cooler at the Waveland Cafe, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. Restaurants are struggling to deal with higher egg prices and an inability to get enough eggs and egg products in the midst of a shortage brought about by a bird flu virus that wiped out millions of chickens on commercial farms this spring.(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Fears that the virus, which has led to the deaths of nearly 45 million birds in 16 states and Canada, could come roaring back in the fall, when temperatures cool, have agriculture officials across the U.S. preparing for the worst.

Even states that haven't been hit yet are taking no chances.

"We're better safe than sorry," said Dr. Robert Cobb, state veterinarian for Georgia, the nation's leading producer of chickens raised for meat, which has not had any cases so far. "All the research I've been able to find is showing that this virus could likely stick around for years."

GEARING UP

After a backyard flock in northeastern Indiana tested positive in early May - the state's first case of the virus - Indiana's State Board of Animal Health banned all bird shows at county fairs this summer, following similar moves in Iowa, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

The board and other state agencies also began planning what they would need in the event of a wider outbreak, including portable toilets and protective gear for personnel.

And they asked the Department of Corrections to begin training non-violent offenders to help with any culls needed.

In late May, the first group of 50 inmates were fit-tested for respirators, and began training on how to safely remove chickens from cages and transfer them to an enclosed cart used to asphyxiate the birds.

Denise Derrer, spokeswoman for the state board of animal health, said crews of low-level offenders have also helped with state recovery efforts after floods and tornadoes and will be used in the event of a wider outbreak.

"We can't count on warm weather killing off this virus," Derrer said.

To the south, Mississippi State Veterinarian Jim Watson, whose state has so far escaped the outbreak, is prepping for the virus to arrive later this year or in early 2016. He and his team have discussed road barricades, biosecurity and the possibility of declaring a state of emergency.

The team has purchased a second foam-based system, used to spray inside infected barns and suffocate birds.

"We're on the Mississippi River, so there's going to have to be geese and ducks that are contaminated coming down that flyway," Watson said. "Even though we have very few chicken farms on the water, those birds are going to stray all over the state during hunting season."

DATA QUESTIONS

While the outbreak does appear to be slowing in the Midwest, where most of the 44.6 million affected birds have been located, outbreak spikes can be difficult to spot quickly in the federal data.

The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) reports cases that its labs confirm, but these numbers often come days or weeks after state agencies have identified and reported probable cases.

Just a day after USDA Chief Veterinary Officer John Clifford told Reuters last week that the agency believed the worst was over, Nebraska announced that a new egg farm with 3 million hens had tested positive. Iowa also reported another outbreak, resulting in the need to cull 1 million more birds.

The uncertainty led Alabama veterinary officials to meet with Gov. Robert J. Bentley's staff to outline bird flu response options. The groups were in agreement, said State Veterinarian Tony Frazier, that Alabama, the third largest producer of broiler chickens, couldn't afford take a wait-and-see approach.

CLEANUP WOES

Even if the outbreak is waning for now, cleanup is far from over.

On Friday, the USDA said it wanted to hire more federal contractors "due to the size and scope" of the outbreak. The USDA and Iowa have contracts with three landfills in the state, including one with a large incinerator, to help speed up culling, bird disposal and barn clean-up.

For locals, help can't come soon enough. In Sioux Center, Iowa, neighbors of an infected Center Fresh Group egg-laying facility told Reuters the stench of dead birds was making them sick.

"We can't live here," said John Fuoss, who said he vomited from the smell of dead chickens and manure used as compost on a nearby field. "My head's ready to explode."

And it will take time for residents of afflicted areas to believe the crisis is past.

Katie Olthoff's family has stopped riding bikes around a lake close to their home near Stanhope, Iowa, out of fear their tires could come into contact with water-fowl feces contaminated with the virus. The family, which raises more than 100,000 turkeys a year, is also staying away from the zoo and from friends who have backyard poultry flocks.

The family, Olthoff said, now assumes "that wherever we go, the entire environment is contaminated."

(Reporting By P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago. Additional reporting by Tom Polansek in Iowa.)

Number of Confirmed Bird Flu Cases by State | HealthGrove

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