U.S. Collaborating with International Groups on Bird Flu Plans

By Kathryn McConnell
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - The United States is collaborating with major international bodies to help countries affected by highly pathogenic avian influenza, or bird flu, control and eradicate the disease, according to a senior U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) official.

Testifying May 11 before the Senate Agriculture Committee, Ron DeHaven, administrator of the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), said USDA is spending $20 million on bird flu control and prevention efforts.

The efforts include helping the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) develop an "emergency operations command center" to track the spread of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus in poultry in and among countries and coordinate response efforts.

The U.S. Congress, in December 2005, approved a total $91.35 million for USDA pandemic influenza preparedness. APHIS is a USDA agency.

Additionally, USDA is coordinating with the FAO, U.N. World Health Organization (WHO) and World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) on enhancing pandemic planning and preparedness at national levels, including providing in-country training and capacity building in affected countries and monitoring flyways of migratory birds that can carry the virus.

Through collaboration with the U.S. Agency for international Development (USAID) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), USDA is posting in-country experts to six Asian countries - Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam - to help establish veterinary frameworks necessary to reduce outbreaks of the virus in birds. The department has planned train-the-trainer exercises to be carried out in these countries and in Burma, according to USDA's preparedness plan.

In the United States, DeHaven said, USDA's aggressive surveillance focuses on wild birds, commercial poultry operations, live bird markets and backyard flocks.

Surveillance involves early detection of the disease followed by investigations of bird deaths or sickness.

Wild birds, in particular certain waterfowl and shorebirds, are considered to be "natural reservoirs," or hosts, for many strains of bird flu, he said.

"This approach is the right one to take and will pay off greatly in the event this highly pathogenic H5N1, or any other serious influenza virus, reaches [the United States]," DeHaven said.

By summer, USDA will be monitoring all four wild bird migratory routes - or flyways - from other countries to the United States, De Haven said.

USDA is spending $9 million to enhance smuggling interdiction and trade compliance efforts to prevent birds from affected countries from entering the United States illegally, DeHaven said.

The department also is using $7 million to continue research and development of improved tools like vaccines, genome sequencing, environmental surveillance and biosecurity; $10 million to increase the animal vaccine stockpile and stock other response supplies; and $18 million to strengthen domestic surveillance and diagnostics.

And it will spend $9 million to enhance planning, equipment, and preparedness training, and the development of simulation models, he said.

DeHaven said the U.S. preparedness strategy includes a communication campaign "to inform while not alarming" the public about how bird flu is transmitted and the importance of safe food handling practices.

USDA's preparedness efforts are part of the Bush administration's National Plan for Pandemic Influenza release earlier in early May. (See related article.)


The U.S. House of Representatives Government Reform Committee also is hearing from experts about the nation’s capability to prepare for and respond to pandemic influenza.

The memories of Hurricane Katrina and the disaster it caused on the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005 were vivid in the Washington hearing room May 11.

Various assessments have found that government agencies at all levels did not properly coordinate their efforts to aid the hundreds of thousands of people affected.

“It's the committee's hope that lessons learned from Katrina are being applied to any deficiencies in the [National Response Plan] so the country is more readily prepared for future disasters,” said Committee Chairman Representative Tom Davis, a Republican from Virginia.

The National Response Plan is a strategy created by the Department of Homeland Security to provide the structure and mechanisms for coordinating federal support to state and local emergency managers.

It is designated as the mechanism for directing a response to the outbreak of pandemic influenza, an event that projections indicate could cause illness for 25 percent to 35 percent of the U.S. population.

Given the potential of a full-blown pandemic, Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) John Agwunobi told the committee that no nation is prepared fully today.

Still, federal officials have made a solid start, he said, convening a series of 49 summit meetings around the nation over the last several months.

Federal officials have been bringing together local and state governments and private-sector individuals to nudge them toward focusing on pandemic preparedness.

“Every state has a plan,” Agwunobi said, though the plans constantly are being improved and refined.

He said the United States should develop “an enduring national ethic of readiness,” which would instill urgency for preparedness in all institutions, individuals and families.

The HHS official said devising and refining preparedness strategies also will enable the nation to respond more effectively to annual bouts of seasonal influenza, during which the health care sector occasionally is beset with problems of vaccine availability and pharmaceutical shortages.

Members of Congress also urged government agencies to improve their state of readiness by implementing policies that allow personnel to telework – perform their work via electronic connections rather than reporting to an office building.

Having this capability to sustain government functions during a time when widespread illness may keep people at home is critical, the lawmakers said.

A study conducted by watchdog agency the Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows most agencies have failed to adequately develop their telework plans for implementation in an emergency.

“None of the 23 agencies [surveyed] demonstrated that it could ensure adequate technological capacity to allow designated personnel to telework during an emergency,” said GAO Comptroller General David Walker in testimony before the committee.

DeHaven's prepared testimony is available on the committee's Web site.

The draft USDA response plan (PDF, 72 pages) is available on the APHIS Web site.

For more information on avian influenza and efforts to combat it, see Bird Flu.