Region's Poultry Farms on High Alert for Virus

David Conley of Centreville, Md., who raises 52,000 chickens for Perdue Farms, doesn't allow outsiders in his chicken houses, one of many precautions he takes against avian flu.
David Conley of Centreville, Md., who raises 52,000 chickens for Perdue Farms, doesn't allow outsiders in his chicken houses, one of many precautions he takes against avian flu. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 7, 2005

There were 561 million chickens -- broilers, roasters and Cornish hens -- raised last year on the Delmarva Peninsula, or, looked at another way, 468 chickens for every person on the Eastern Shore. Some of the biggest names in chicken -- Perdue Farms, Tyson Foods -- operate here alongside 5,500 chicken houses in the $1.7 billion industry.

All of which makes the spread of avian flu in Asia more than just some vague fear about what's happening half a world away, and is why Jenny Rhodes won't let you on her farm.

"No admittance. Nobody goes down to the chicken houses unless it's ourselves or our serviceman," said Rhodes, who raises 80,000 chickens on her farm in Queen Anne's County, Md. "For us, biosecurity is something we deal with every day."

In recent years, poultry farmers on the Eastern Shore and in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley have been struck by outbreaks of avian flu -- albeit a less deadly strain than the one that has killed 140 million birds and 60 people in Asia in the past two years -- and industry leaders say they have ramped up security to protect their poultry.

A drive through the fields of Queen Anne's County reveals signs on the low-slung chicken houses calling out the warning: "Restricted. No Admittance. Poultry Biosecurity in Place." Farmers change clothes before moving from their homes to their chicken houses. Their employees walk through disinfectant baths to kill germs on boots heading in and out. Farm supply stores spray the tires of feed trucks with bleach.

Agriculture officials are fitting poultry workers with protective suits and masks in case of an outbreak, and they are running simulations of how to respond if the virus spreads beyond state boundaries and -- the worst fear -- starts infecting people.

"The situation that we're all concerned about is the possibility of a pandemic. There are reasons to be cautious about this and not ignore it," said Maryland state medical epidemiologist David Blythe, stressing that the risk is remote. "I think the Eastern Shore is probably further along than anywhere else in the country for preparation for this type of event . . . but we have to remain vigilant."

In the Washington region, bookended by two poultry-growing areas, these lessons have been hard won. An outbreak of avian flu in the Shenandoah Valley in 2002 meant 4 million turkeys and chickens had to be killed on 197 farms at a cost of $130 million to the industry, said Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation. One infected bird can prompt the slaughter of a farm's entire flock.

After a bird flu breakout last year on three commercial farms on the Eastern Shore -- two in Delaware and one in Maryland -- more than 30 countries banned imports of Delmarva chicken. The strain of flu found on the Eastern Shore did not harm humans -- it was known as a low-pathogenic variety -- and wasn't all that lethal to chickens, either, Maryland state veterinarian Guy Hohenhaus said.

"The disease doesn't destroy the industry. The reaction to the disease would destroy the industry," he said. "Nobody would want to buy Delmarva poultry."

To shift from a threat to birds to a threat to humans, the strain of influenza virus would have to undergo a genetic change. Researchers announced this week that the deadly strain in Asia appears to be slowly acquiring the type of genetic changes seen in the "Spanish flu" virus that killed 50 million people in the early 1900s.

The scenario that officials want to avoid goes like this: A poultry farm worker with human flu comes in contact with a chicken infected with bird flu. Those two strains then mix to produce a third that could pass more easily among humans.

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