US on high alert for bird flu after Indiana poultry outbreak

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Is Bird Flu Back?

CHICAGO (Reuters) -- In the two weeks since bird flu reappeared in Indiana, U.S. veterinarians have swabbed the mouths of chickens and turkeys across the country, racing to uncover any more infections and contain the virus before it causes mass death and damage like last year.

Biologists also are running tests on feces collected from wild birds, which are suspected of spreading the disease to farms.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed on Jan. 15 that a turkey flock in Dubois County, Indiana, was infected with the H7N8 strain of the virus. It was the first new case of bird flu in U.S. poultry flocks since June.

More poultry flocks will likely fall ill in the coming months, veterinarians said, following an unprecedented outbreak last year that caused more than 48 million chickens and turkeys to die from sickness or because they had to be culled to contain the disease.

See more on the history of bird flu outbreaks:

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US on high alert for bird flu after Indiana poultry outbreak
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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Anxiety over that risk is fueling vigilance among U.S. poultry producers and government officials looking for signs of infections. Increased testing could help limit the spread if new cases are detected quickly.

"Everybody's testing everything," said John Glisson, vice-president of research for the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, an industry group.

In the days after the latest outbreak, when winter weather was hampering travel, the USDA arranged for a plane to fly poultry samples from farms near the infected site in Indiana to an Iowa lab to speed up testing, said Denise Derrer, spokeswoman for the Indiana Board of Animal Health.

Typically, the samples would be driven across Illinois.

State and federal authorities culled more than 400,000 birds near the infected farm to contain the outbreak. About 350,000 in the area were killed even though they were diagnosed with a less lethal form of bird flu or tested negative for the disease.

Officials said they wanted to be aggressive to avoid a repeat of last year's losses. USDA believes the less lethal virus type mutated into a more deadly strain in one flock.

Indiana has required testing in flocks as far as 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from the infected farm at least every five to seven days, exceeding the USDA's standard requirement for testing confined to a zone half that size.

Last year showed the passage of a few weeks without a new infection did not mean the end of the virus.

Minnesota, the nation's top turkey producing state, confirmed its first infection in poultry on March 5. Its next case was not detected until March 27, and the state subsequently lost 5 million turkeys.

"We're constantly reminded of what happened in Minnesota last year," Derrer said.

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