Georgia prepares for potential bird flu outbreak

By BRITTANY MAHER

MARIETTA, Ga. – As the winter season draws near, the state of Georgia is taking precautions for a potential bird flu outbreak. The avian influenza virus, known as H5N1, is considered to be the biggest threat the state’s agricultural industry has ever seen.

Georgia is the largest poultry producing state followed by Arkansas and Alabama, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Although the poultry industry currently has a secure program in place for monitoring and testing any cases influenza that may occur, Georgia could potentially take a hard hit financially.

“It’s potentially going to impact our state for the first time ever this year,” said Barron Gilbert, communications specialist at the Georgia Department of Agriculture. “This would be considered a major catastrophe because it has such a large economic impact, so we work on what we will do to handle the situation and try to warn the public and get everyone ready in the poultry community, backyard poultry owners and getting people more knowledgeable about what [avian influenza virus] is.”

According to the Georgia Poultry Federation, the poultry industry impacts Georgia’s economy by $18.4 billion annually and provides jobs for 100,000 Georgia residents.

“It’s known as bird flu but I don’t like to use that term because there’s so many different types and this has no type of effect on human health. This is an animal health issue only and it doesn’t have a food safety impact at this time but it is something that’s being monitored closely by the Georgia Department of Public Health,” said Gilbert.

Currently, there have not been any human cases of avian influenza H5N1 confirmed in the U.S. and it has not become a pandemic influenza strain, according to the Georgia Department of Health.

This particular strain of the virus is not zoonotic, which means it is unable to pass from animal to human. However, since avian influenza viruses can mutate quickly and without difficulty, public health officials are closely monitoring the virus. With combined efforts from the Georgia Department of Agriculture, the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Georgia Poultry Federation, precautions are being taken at this time to ensure that Georgia does not suffer from the ramifications of a potential outbreak.

“Fortunately we have never had avian influenza in the poultry industry in Georgia and we hope it continues that way,” said Francis “Abit” Massey, president emeritus of Georgia Poultry Federation. “We work on funding for the Georgia Poultry Diagnostic Laboratory and they test a few birds from every chicken farm before they go to the processing plant to make sure they don’t have avian influenza or any other disease.”

Along with consistent monitoring, the Georgia Department of Agriculture has created a response plan that is available to the public on its website.

From local farms to large poultry plants, Georgia produces up to 7 million pounds of chicken every day. Photo by: Brittany Maher
From local farms to large poultry plants, Georgia produces up to 7 million pounds of chicken every day. Photo by: Brittany Maher

In terms of Georgia poultry, the overall goal of the Georgia Response Plan is to detect, control, and eradicate an outbreak of the avian influenza virus H5N1 according to the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

The plan itself details the complete strategies to be implemented and includes specific information on authorities, agencies, general methodologies, approaches, outlines of communication/vaccination plans and other provisions.

“We launched a campaign to remind poultry growers and employees about the importance of protecting their premises. It’s a strong team effort involving the Georgia Department of Agriculture and other state agencies, so the industry will be well-prepared,” Massey said. “It was somewhat of a disaster when it hit the Midwest and they lost a large number of chickens so we hope to never have it here. We’re trying to be prepared and react quickly if it ever comes.”

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