Bird Flu Alarm

2006-04-13-County braces for avian flu

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-04-13-County braces for avian flu

- It's almost 6 p.m. and customers line up at Dakao Poultry to buy a freshly slaughtered chicken for $7.50.

They're thinking about dinner, not bird flu.

But in the back, a state worker covered in sterile garments swabs the throat of a squirming hen to test for avian influenza.

"We want the customers to understand we are doing testing," says Hung Ngo, owner of the live bird market in Little Saigon. "It is really good for my business."

A few days later and 12 miles away in Santa Ana, Joe Ortiz watches over his front yard flock of more than 25 chickens and roosters.

He knows all about bird flu, too. This week, he picked up a bilingual calendar published by the state's Avian Health Group, headquartered in Garden Grove. Each month, it offers tips for preventing bird flu and portraits of a photogenic chicken or rooster.

"If it's going to come, it's going to come," Ortiz says, as a chicken roosts on a truck parked in the driveway. "You can't even cure the common cold. Why worry about it?"

The deadly strain of H5N1 virus that has steadily spread in the past year to birds across the globe has yet to arrive in the United States. But if and when it hits California's $3 billion poultry industry, state veterinarians and epidemiologists need to know immediately.

They're already testing birds from every commercial flock, and facing the challenge of a diverse market. In Orange County, the bird business includes live bird markets, swap meets, feed stores and the backyard birds whose eggs may feed a neighborhood.

"It's really one big flock," said Dr. David Castellan, a veterinarian for the state Department of Food and Agriculture. "The virus doesn't care what kind of bird it is."

Even after freeways and condos replaced orange groves and strawberry fields, some residents have stayed true to the county's agricultural roots. Most Orange County cities allow several chickens per household if residents live on a large lot. Noisy roosters are generally outlawed.

Irvine City Attorney Philip Kohn has raised chickens at his North Tustin home for nearly 20 years. His five hens each produce up to one egg a day.

"Home-grown eggs taste and look and smell better. And you know what you've been feeding your chickens," Kohn said.

Kohn said he worries more about opossums, raccoons and coyotesthan the bird flu. Still, he's always on the lookout for unusual illnesses.

Down the road in an unincorporated area near Anaheim, Nancy Francis recently shored up her backyard chicken coop to keep out any wild birds. She said the threat of any bird disease has kept her vigilant at watching her flock.

"You know how old they are and how long they should live," Francis said. "You notice when something's amiss."

Concern over bird flu isn't just for chicken owners.

Tim Thompson of San Clemente races homing pigeons and wants to make sure his birds are in top-flight condition. A disease outbreak - such as exotic Newcastle disease in 2003 - can force the cancellation of an entire race season.

Some of Thompson's racing pigeons are worth $500 and must stay fit enough to fly across the state.

"You're competing with what we like to think are superior athletes," he said. "They have to be in the finest of shape. They can't have any diseases."

Beyond the backyard chicken coops and hobbyists, the black market for exotic pets, egg-laying chickens and fighting roosters has officials worried.

The federal government has increased its focus at airports, land borders and ports to keep illegal foreign birds out of the country.

"Homeland Security and Customs are ramping up their efforts," said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, who added this advice: "Don't buy birds on the black market."

That's been a problem at times in Santa Ana, where Latino and Asian immigrants accustomed to raising poultry in their native countries, bring birds to the dense city.

"We've seen birds that have been imported from Thailand," said Sgt. Marty Shirey who supervises the Police Department's animal-control division. "We've seen them imported from Mexico. There're so many places from which they come that we can't control. And half the time we don't even know until we happen upon them."

So far this year, Santa Ana animal control officers have cited 52 residents for illegally raising fowl or failing to keep them in coops.

In addition to annoying neighbors, who complain of rooster wake-up calls and birds flying into their yards, animal-control officers are focused on the potential spread of disease.

Last month, animal-control officers received special masks designed to protect them from avian flu. Patrol officers, who may encounter backyard chickens, have received training about sterilizing their boots so they don't transmit potential illness.

Ortiz, who shares eggs with his Santa Ana neighbors, says he keeps his birds healthy, which he considers the best precaution.

"I always give them shots when they're baby chickies," he said. "If they do go out (of the yard), I chase them back in."

Ngo, 49, opened Dakao Poultry three months ago. He sells as many as 220 chickens a day for cooking and receives farm shipments daily.

As part of the state testing program, he closes operations one day every month for a thorough disinfection that would break the transmission cycle.

Later, a state lab technician arrives to randomly test birds pulled from the cage.

After swabbing the throat, the technician turns the bird upside down to test the backside. Then, the chicken goes back to the cage and the vials head for the lab in Ontario. Results come back within six hours and are entered into the Garden Grove database.

Castellan said all 31 Southern California live-bird markets, including three in Orange County, have agreed to the testing. Last year, the program tested about 120,000 birds at farms, feed stores, live-bird markets and back yards.

The state lab also tests for exotic Newcastle disease, a bird virus, which three years ago led to the financially devastating destruction of 3 million Southern California birds. That outbreak began with backyard chickens.

While the state also tests baby chicks sold at feed stores, business owner Margaret Millspaugh said she hasn't been visited this year.

About 50 chicks are sold each month at The Wagon Train feed store in Orange, said Millspaugh, who became a certified avian disease specialist by taking an online course offered by the state.

Funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture pay for the bird testing. Even though the program is voluntary, the results are worthwhile as long as birds from commercial markets and back yards are tested, public-health experts say.

"You don't have to get 100 percent compliance," said Benjamin, the director of the American Public Health Association. "As long as you get representative samples of all of the various groups, the bird surveillance serves as an early warning system for us."

Ngo, who also owns a Vietnamese restaurant serving chicken soup, said his customers occasionally ask him about bird flu.

"This is the United States," he tells them. "Don't worry. If it happens, we'll take care of it."

Understanding Avian Influenza