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Hunt For Avian Flu Ongoing In Tri-Cities, Washington State

n Kennewick, Wash., Leslie Linderoth and Phoebe Smurthwaite, 13, hold thier Bantam chicken after USDA officials tested it for avian influenza.
Anna King
Northwest News Network
n Kennewick, Wash., Leslie Linderoth and Phoebe Smurthwaite, 13, hold thier Bantam chicken after USDA officials tested it for avian influenza.

After discoveries of avian flu in Washington state and Oregon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state officials are testing flocks near the latest outbreaks in southeast Washington.

USDA and Washington state officials teamed up to talk about the work they’re doing on farms and backyards around southeast Washington state lately.

A local farmer volunteer and her chicken and drake duck were employed to show how birds are swabbed and how to contain the spread of avian flu.

Birds started dying suddenly in two area flocks. And then they tested positive for bird flu near the start of the year. Now, every residence in about a two-mile swath around those farms is likely to get a visit from government veterinarians and technicians.

“At this ICP or incident command post, it’s 15 people,” USDA veterinarian Rolf Westly said. “But I have to tell you, we’re the people out in the trenches. And for all of us that are out there, we have probably two to three as many people behind us, behind the scenes supporting us so we can do what we can do as quick as we do it.”

Not harmful to humans

They’ve visited farms, neighborhoods and even several feed stores in the past few days. The bird flu strains found in Washington and Oregon are not harmful to humans. But, they are very contagious and deadly among birds.

Avian flu is usually carried by wild ducks and spreads from their feces.

All of the swabs from these chicken beaks and duck butts will be sent to state and federal labs. If any new cases are confirmed -- the quarantine and the circle-of-search widens. And more USDA boots will land in this wintry desert country.

Despite large amounts of public education and news reports, four flock owners from within the quarantine zone have refused to let their birds be swabbed.

“This is America and that’s their choice,” Westly said.

His USDA team may be testing flocks from about 150 homes and farms.

“If we can sample 90 percent of those statistically I think we can make the argument if they come back negative that there is no infection there.”

'This, this is just horrendous'

All of this swabbing and door knocking is laborious work. Samples have to be clearly tracked. Ag workers have to suit up, don gloves and sterilize their boots in baths with large brushes. Even truck tires have to be disinfected between stops.

And this work is critical to a U.S. industry that exports hundreds-of-millions of dollars worth of chicken and eggs. China is now on the list of countries that have shut down trade for U.S. poultry products. Just in 2013, about 280,000 metric tons of chicken were shipped to China alone.

“This, this is just horrendous,” said Jim Sumner, president of the United States Poultry and Egg Export Council.

He said now that several key countries have cracked down on U.S. chickens and eggs at ports, it could take years to get those markets back.

“Countries are going to have to come to the realization that migratory bird patterns are going to spread certain diseases and that they can be controlled,” Sumner explained. “And that just because a migratory bird or even a backyard flock test positive for something like high path avian influenza, does not mean that it’s in the commercial poultry industry.”

At a press event in southeast Washington, government officials said its important for backyard chicken and duck owners to keep their fowl separated from wild birds.

So far, no commercial chicken farms have reported illness in their flocks.

Copyright 2015 Northwest News Network

Anna King loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network, a journalism collaboration of public radio stations in Washington and Oregon that includes JPR.