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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History of bird flu outbreaks
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US on high alert for bird flu after Indiana poultry outbreak
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
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)
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)
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)
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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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