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Animal officials prepare to combat bird flu, just in case

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  • Animal officials prepare to combat bird flu, just in case

    Animal officials prepare to combat bird flu, just in case n_case/

    By Carolyn Y. Johnson, Globe Staff | September 28, 2006

    As avian influenza continues to spread around the globe, local preparations for a possible flu pandemic have focused on how to provide medical care for people. But there has also been a quiet, growing effort to organize the animal inspectors, wildlife officials, and veterinarians who are likely first responders if birds carry the virus to the region first.

    Wildlife officials began rounding up Canada geese and other migratory birds this summer at area cemeteries, parks, golf courses, beaches, and neighborhoods, and tested them for the deadly H5N1 strain of influenza. Although all such tests have been negative, the New England Wildlife Center in Weymouth will hold a full-day seminar in November to foster discussion among those on the front line who may be called on to pick up sick or dead birds, which can infect people. Meanwhile, at least one town has provided its animal inspector with an emergency response kit, complete with a protective Tyvek suit.

    ``I'm almost sure that research centers are going to detect avian flu," probably long before the public comes into contact with it, said Gregory Mertz , executive director of the wildlife center.

    ``We're trying to create an educational base with probably the people who are going to be the most susceptible -- the animal control officers, the rehabilitators, and the members of the public who are sensitive and caring when they see things happening in their yards," he said.

    Worldwide, there has been growing concern about the H5N1 influenza strain, which has gradually spread, infecting birds and sometimes jumping from a bird to a person. The virus has infected 247 people in 10 countries, and killed 144 people since 2003, according to the World Health Organization, and many researchers think that it is only a matter of time before the disease shows up on this continent.

    The frenzy that has surrounded the virus and spurred local efforts -- including recruitment of a Medical Reserve Corps and designation of vaccine distribution centers where 80 percent of the town or city's population can be inoculated within two days -- is based on the fear that the virus, which is now transmitted by birds, will mutate into a virulent form of flu that can pass from person to person.

    In Massachusetts, the projections of what could happen are staggering: 80,000 people in the state could be sickened, and 20,000 dead within six to eight weeks, according to a state study.

    But before people are affected, the disease could appear in area animals -- putting pessure on the lone animal control officials and inspectors who work in area towns, inspect farms, collect dead animals, and monitor domestic and wild animals.

    ``We're the first ones out there; we're the animal inspectors in every town; we see the animals before everyone else does," said Paul Murphy , animal control officer for the towns of Norwell and Hingham.

    The state and federal governments have been leading the charge to orchestrate a system that would contain the spread of the virus by everything from poultry to migratory birds.

    At the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, the SEANET program -- a consortium of volunteers and researchers that monitors bird deaths along the coastline, from Maine to New Jersey -- began including tests for avian influenza this year.

    Julie Ellis , director of SEANET, said that the common thinking in the scientific community is that the avian flu will be detected in Alaska well before it spreads to this coast, but that it is important to have a network in place to monitor the bird population.

    Brad Mitchell , director of the Biosecurity and Regulatory Services of the state Department of Agricultural Resources, said that one of the challenges in southeastern Massachusetts, as in much of the state, is that there are scattered backyard poultry flocks.

    Unlike bigger poultry farms, these flocks can be difficult to monitor and document, and they may be exposed to disease in hard-to-track places, like the backyard pond.

    If avian influenza is found in the wild, ``We want to know where all those backyard flocks are. . . . ``W e would want to put up a 2 -mile perimeter and do surveillance," he said.

    Indeed, even in suburban Milton, chickens have appeared curbside. Linda Kippenberger, animal control officer for Milton, said that over the past few months, three chickens were found abandoned in town. The town rescued two hens and a rooster, and they were healthy when tested for avian flu, as well as other diseases.

    Kippenberger was following state protocol in having the chickens tested, and all animal inspectors and animal control officials take their cues from public health and agriculture officials.

    John Melin, animal control officer and inspector for Easton said that for years he has donned gloves, bagged, double bagged, and boxed up birds, and sent them to the state laboratory in a box marked with a biohazard sticker to test for West Nile virus.

    But in some towns, animal officials are taking their own initiatives to help prepare for a possible emergency.

    Priscilla McGilvray , assistant animal control officer and animal inspector for Marshfield, said that the town has prepared a response kit, complete with gloves, a Tyvek suit, masks, and quarantine signs.

    ``I don't think the first place it's going to show up is Marshfield, Massachusetts," said McGilvray. But, she added, ``I'm the front line . . . I'm hoping I will never use the kit, but it's one of those things you've got to be ready for."