State, USDA expand bird flu search
Kerry Craig | News-Telegram Assistant Editor

June 1, 2004 -- U.S. Department of Agriculture and Texas Animal Health Commission officials are checking chicken farms and backyard flocks of poultry for avain flu after the discovery of infected birds in the area last week.

Inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Texas Animal Health Commission converged on Hopkins County Thursday after a routine health inspection at a chicken farm west of Sulphur Springs revealed some of the birds had avian flu.

About 24,000 chickens were destroyed after the infection was found at the farm, which supplies chickens to Pilgrim's Pride. The Pittsburg-based poultry giant said routine blood tests at the breeder farm indicated the bird flu infection.

After the initial discovery, other chicken operations were checked for infection, and this week inspectors were beginning to look in back yards to determine if the virus might be more widespread than initially thought.

Samples from backyard flocks of chickens will be submitted to the state to determine if the virus has spread beyond the farm, according to Carla Everett, spokeswoman for the Texas Animal Health Commission.

"We're testing backyard flocks all around, collecting samples all around that went to Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic lab today," Everett said Tuesday morning.

Since the initial discovery of the virus, both Sulphur Springs and Hopkins County emergency management offices have assisted state and federal authorities in establishing a quarantine at the initial farm where the virus was found, and to set up a command post with "clean" and "dirty" rooms for use in searching for the flu virus.

Lt. Rex Morgan, Sulphur Springs emergency management coordinator, said inspectors will be driving streets and alleys in the city in search of backyard flocks of chickens.

Texas Animal Health Commission vehicles have door emblems and display Texas exempt license plates. U.S. Department of Agriculture vehicles, other than having U.S. government license plates on them, are not marked.

Morgan said both the state and government inspectors will be carrying proper identification with them as they contact residents.

"I'm told, by them, that after they drive all the streets, they will go door-to-door in some areas," Morgan said. "Just be aware, if they do, to make sure it is these people and make sure they have an ID."

The command post established in Sulphur Springs to manage the avian flu discovery is at an undisclosed location. The Texas Animal Health Commission spokeswoman said not making the location public is standard policy for the commission, and not for secrecy reasons.

"That's always done," she said. "It is because we don't need people tromping in and out and tracking in more virus ... we try to keep it bio-secure."

It could take up to 10 days to isolate the virus and study it to determine how lethal it is to birds, and officials are testing an estimated 120-160 farms within a 10-mile radius of the initial site and commercial flocks within a 50-kilometer radius, according to Dr. Mark Michalke, who is heading up the local effort.

The illness is usually transmitted from bird to bird through respiratory discharge, but it can also be passed in bird manure, then mechanically transmitted to flocks on boots, shoes, clothing, equipment or tires.

This was the second outbreak in Texas this year. In February, an outbreak was reported at a farm near Gonzales, east of San Antonio. More than 9,000 chickens were destroyed, and several countries banned Texas poultry.

State officials said the two outbreaks are unrelated.

Questions about the investigation should be directed to the local command post at 903-439-0486.

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