Bio-security is serious business on poultry farms in the United States. A national network - including diagnostic laboratories and state agricultural services - is in place to monitor and respond to an incident that could put animals or humans at risk.
Jenny Rhodes, who operates a farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore, wants to keep her operation disease free. Posted on trees at the entrance is this warning: Access Restricted.
Five times a year, 80,000 day-old chicks are delivered to her doorstep. She raises them in chicken houses on the property until they are ready for slaughter eight weeks later. Ms. Rhodes takes no chances with their health.
"We don't want anyone coming on our farm," she says and adds, "It's fine for people to my homestead, to my house to visit, but only myself and my sons and a serviceman who comes once a week [can come on the farm]. You could bring in something in to our chickens - on your feet, in your nostrils, anywhere. So we have to be very careful."
Visitors on farm business must suit up in full-body bio-security garb… complete with cap, boots, gloves and facemask. Jenny Rhodes and her two college-age sons take the same precautions, always changing from street to work clothes for farm chores.
"We don't want to take anything that we have into them because they are in total confinement," she says. "They have no access to wild birds, wild animals, to nothing, only to us. We are the only ones coming in there. We have to protect our investment. That is a big investment that I have."
Two-thousand farm families raise poultry on the Delmarva Peninsula, where parts of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia come together. It is a $1.7 billion-a-year business… one of the country's top poultry-producing regions.
With increased awareness of the highly infectious bird flu in Asia, Delmarva growers want to assure the American public that their poultry is safe.
The H5N1 strain of avian influenza - which has led to the slaughter of 140 million birds - has not reached the United States. Even so, Maryland State veterinarian Guy Hohenhaus says health surveillance has been stepped up as part of a coordinated effort to monitor poultry across the country.
"We're in the process right now on the Delmarva Peninsula of increasing our flock surveillance from about 40 percent of the flocks going to slaughter," he says. "That's actually a high number and a very representative scientifically sound number," he adds, "that we are in the process of moving over the next month or so to 100 percent of all flocks being tested for avian influenzas of pretty much any kind, so that we are very confident when a flock goes to slaughter and ultimately goes to market does not have any avian influenza in any way."
Not only could an avian flu incident harm the chickens and hurt the economy, it could also become a public health problem, should humans become infected with the highly pathogenic avian virus. Half of the 120 people who have contracted the disease from birds in Asia have died.
If the virus emerges in their birds, Delmarva growers have an emergency plan.
Poultry trade group executive, Bill Satterfield, says the plan builds on disease prevention measures - like those on Jenny Rhodes' Farm - and on recommended government public health guidelines for workers who would respond to an incident. The plans call for the use of bio-security equipment, respirators, health monitoring before the people go in the houses, health monitoring after they leave for several weeks to make sure they did not pick up any virus, the use of antibiotics, the use of antiviral drugs, and just good bio-security practices.
Within a day of diagnosis, all birds on the affected farm would be slaughtered and composted, the property quarantined and neighboring farms put under intensive surveillance. Bill Satterfield says Delmarva growers are cautious, but not fearful of widespread disease.
"We are ramping up of course because there is more attention and more resources available to help us, but our members are not panicking or going off the deep end because of this thing in Asia," he says. "We've had a plan in place for twenty years and we had an [avian] episode two years ago. We managed that very effectively. We learned from that. We are building on those successes and we're better prepared than we had been, but we are not panicking by any stretch of the imagination."
Bill Satterfield says the plan is a pro-active approach to prevent an outbreak of avian influenza in animals and humans. He is confident that the bio-security measures in place can help prevent, control and respond to any health incident, large or small. Back on the farm, Jenny Rhodes says precautions remain a way of life.