Joe Chisholm, 62, has taken every precaution that he and the poultry industry can think of to protect his chicken farm in Pocomoke City, Md., from avian flu. After he gets up every morning at 5:30, he reads the paper, drinks a cup of coffee and heads out the door for the first of four inspections of his chicken houses about 30 yards away, keeping an eye open for sickly-looking birds. He also sprays his shoes with disinfectant when he goes to an area where other chicken farmers may be, washes down all trucks before they roll onto the farm and stays informed through e-mail messages from poultry veterinarians. "I take a lot of pride in keeping everything neat and clean," Chisholm says. "I just don't want to take a chance."
Lately, Chisholm has been paying a lot more attention to the news from overseas. Since the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus was first reported in Turkey last fall, avian flu has spread swiftly, landing in France, Germany, Iraq, India, Nigeria, Niger, Poland and many other countries. So far this year, three dozen human cases have been confirmed in China, Turkey, Iraq and Indonesia.
Even if H5N1 remains a problem mostly among birds, however, the virus could have a devastating economic impact on Chisholm and many other farmers and the businesses that depend on them. Poultry sales have already plummeted across Asia and Europe. Overall, U.S. exports of broiler chickens were down 30% in December 2005 compared with the prior year. The greatest danger, however, may be in Africa, where the income, not to mention the food, that chickens provide can mean the difference between life and death.
Most experts think it's just a matter of time before avian flu finds its way to the Americas. Dr. David Nabarro, U.N. coordinator for avian and human influenza, told reporters last week he believed that H5N1 would jump to the New World "within the next six to 12 months." The U.S. government appears to agree. "Be prepared for H5N1 being identified in the U.S.," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said earlier this month. "It would be almost biblical to think we would be protected."
Warnings like that are hard to ignore, and major U.S. poultry growers are paying close attention. In January the industry decided to step up its existing biosecurity measures by testing some birds in every flock for the most dangerous types of avian flu before they leave the chicken house to be slaughtered. All the birds in an infected flock would be put down immediately, and the surrounding area quarantined. "Our strategy is to keep sick birds on the farm," says Richard Lobb of the National Chicken Council. "Once the virus escapes into the environment, it's very hard to control."
U.S. poultry farmers have already learned that hard lesson, having faced outbreaks of other avian flus as recently as 2002 and 2004. H5N1 is only one of more than 100 subtypes of the influenza A virus. The majority of the subtypes are found in birds. A few, such as H3N2 and H1N1, have adapted to infect humans. The 2002 avian outbreak, which struck in Virginia, was the H7N2 subtype, and it illustrated the importance of early detection. "The outbreak was not contained in time and spread to 200 farms up and down the Shenandoah Valley," says Lobb.