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Officials: Avian Flu-Infected Birds May Arrive in US This Year

The Bush administration warns that the United States is likely to get its first case of bird flu this year. Government wildlife and public health officials are stepping up the testing of migratory birds to detect any that might be carrying the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus.

U.S. authorities have tested about 16,000 migratory birds for H5N1 since the disease first appeared in Hong Kong nine years ago, but they are vastly increasing their effort on the assumption that wild birds are the most likely way bird flu would enter the United States for the first time.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton says it is only a matter of time before this happens.

"It is increasingly likely that we will detect the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian flu in birds within the U.S. borders, possibly as early as this year," she said.

The bird flu early warning plan to which Norton and the chiefs of the U.S. agriculture and health departments have agreed will collect samples from 75,000 to 100,000 live and dead wild birds this year. They also plan to collect 50,000 samples of water or feces from high risk waterfowl habitats across the United States.

Norton says the emphasis will be on monitoring bird migration routes through Alaska and over the Pacific Ocean.

"If migratory birds carry the highly pathogenic H5N1 or similarly dangerous virus to the United States, it is most likely to arrive first via the Pacific Islands or Alaska," she said.

Officials will also increase their monitoring of bird flyways over the Central United States, the southern part of the country through Mississippi, and over the north Atlantic Ocean from Canada.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns says the U.S. poultry industry is well protected against bird flu because the animals are kept enclosed. But if U.S. domestic poultry does become infected, he says agricultural authorities would act quickly to erase the threat by quarantining and killing affected birds.

"There are instances where we might use the vaccine to, in effect, build a rim around an infected area, but our preference is to be much more aggressive and just simply eradicate the birds, eliminate the virus, do the disinfectant, and literally end it right there," Johanns said.

Johanns' agency oversees the $29 billion a year U.S. poultry industry. Detection of the H5N1 virus in a chicken might hurt the business badly, so the agriculture secretary stresses that properly prepared poultry is safe to eat because cooking kills the virus.

Some video provided by: DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR