Some of the fallout from the Alabama case is known: South Korea said on Friday that it will delay limited imports of American beef until at least May. And U.S. lawmakers say they'll push to have a livestock identification program included in the 2007 farm bill.
The developing protocol for just about any animal disease seems to be that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That's certainly the mindset surrounding bird flu, which continues to spread from nation to nation.
U.S. officials are bracing for the arrival in this country of bird flu, which threatens U.S. poultry producers, as well as the population at large.
According to the World Health Organization, or WHO, the lethal H5N1 strain of avian influenza poses a greater challenge to the world than any infectious disease, including AIDS. Health experts say because the H5N1 virus is airborne, it is easier to transmit and much more contagious than AIDS. The WHO describes bird flu as unprecedented in its scope as an animal disease, saying it is costing the world's agriculture industry more than $10 billion and affecting the livelihoods of 300 million farmers. Since February, the virus has infected birds in 17 countries including Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
The main concern is that the H5N1 strain could mutate into a form easily passed from human-to-human, triggering a global pandemic. The WHO reports 175 human cases of bird flu, 95 of them fatal, since the latest wave of outbreaks began in 2003. Most human cases have been linked to contact with sick birds.
The disease has been ravaging poultry flocks around the world, as the discovery of new outbreaks can prompt the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of additional birds. In India alone, nearly 800-thousand birds were ordered killed recently.
U.S. health officials said last week they have authorized the development of a second vaccine to combat the deadly virus. Flu viruses, whether in birds or people, are constantly changing, so the government is trying to keep vaccines as up to date as possible. The U.S. already has several million doses of a bird flu vaccine based on a sample of a virus taken in 2004 from Vietnam, where the first cases in people began to show up. But, the virus is believed to have mutated since then.
SLUG ASIA BIRD MARKETS
Veterinarians in the U.S. caution that the Asian and North American versions of the virus are not the same. The Asian version is highly pathogenic among birds, while the North American strain is classified as a low pathogenic variety. But, with the spring migration of birds from Asia to Alaska expected to start next month, the federal government has plans to beef-up its effort to look for bird flu. All live birds that enter the U.S. already have to go through a 30-day quarantine in which they are tested for avian flu and other viruses. The government doesn't allow imports of birds from countries that have H5N1 in poultry flocks.