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Virginia Works to Prevent Avian Flu Outbreak Like 2002 Epidemic

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Feb. 20--Virginia officials are doing everything they can to avoid an outbreak of the disease that caused record financial losses to the state's poultry industry two years ago.

Avian influenza was discovered last week at several poultry farms in Delaware -- one of the two states along with Virginia on the Delmarva Peninsula.

Virginia state veterinarian Donald W. Butts began inspecting all open market sales and bird shows on the Eastern Shore last weekend in an attempt to limit spread of the disease. The ban only applies to the Eastern Shore because Virginia's other concentration of poultry farms, in the Shenandoah Valley, is geographically separated.

Last week's discovery set off a round of testing and security measures in the states that make up the Delmarva Peninsula. The poultry industry creates about $1.5 billion a year in sales for those states.

The international community has reacted, too -- 27 countries have temporarily banned all U.S. poultry. This has caused officials with the Virginia Port Authority to keep a close eye on the situation.

"It's going to affect us," said Tom Capozzi, senior managing director for marketing services with the authority. "We're hopeful that this thing is going to be resolved soon."

Agriculture officials say everything being done is simply to prevent an outbreak like the one in 2002, which forced farmers in the Shenandoah Valley to destroy 4.7 million chickens and turkeys and caused about $130 million in losses.

"It's a matter of caution," said Elaine Lindholm, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The Delaware strain is similar to the disease that spread through the Shenandoah Valley. State officials aren't comparing this outbreak to that situation but say the caution is absolutely necessary.

The strain of avian influenza found in Delaware is not harmful to humans, but it is highly contagious among birds. It causes them to become lethargic and makes breathing difficult, but is usually not fatal. It could, however, mutate into a fatal version, forcing farmers to destroy any poultry flock that shows signs of the disease.

The Delaware bird strain of the disease is entirely different from the avian flu now causing panic in Asia, where about 20 people have died from it.

Virginia officials are optimistic their preventative actions will be successful.

The situation in Delaware "is not an immediate threat to Virginia's poultry industry outside the Eastern Shore," said J. Carlton Courter III, Virginia's agriculture commissioner. But, he added, "it is yet another reminder that we all need to practice good bio-security."

Courter encouraged farmers to limit access to poultry houses and practice sanitation with all equipment. If farmers see signs of infection or disease -- such as birds with breathing difficulties or droopy posture -- they should contact one of the state's animal health laboratories.

Poultry is Virginia's most profitable agricultural sector, and is dominated by farmers on the Eastern Shore and in the Shenandoah Valley. Virginia's 1,775 poultry farmers racked up $616 million in wholesale receipts for poultry and eggs in 2002, the year of the avian flu outbreak. The poultry industry produced about $790 million in sales in 2001.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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(c) 2004, Daily Press, Newport News, Va. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.


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