Iowa declares state of emergency to fight bird flu 'epidemic'

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, May 1, 2015 - Gov. Terry Branstad declared a state of emergency today in Iowa after four new probable cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) were detected in his state, the nation's leading producer of eggs. Two other states, Minnesota, the country's top turkey producer, and Wisconsin, had already declared states of emergency last month.

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The recent findings in Iowa, should they be confirmed, would mean there have been 21 outbreaks in the state, affecting at least 16 million laying hens, or more than a quarter of the 58.3 million layers in the state. All of the affected animals are being depopulated. Branstad called the spread of the virus, which has now spread to 14 states, an “epidemic.”

“Not in the years that I've been in state government have we had a disaster situation affecting, in this case, our poultry, like this,” said Branstad, who was elected to the state House back in 1973. “This is a magnitude much greater than anything we've dealt with in recent, modern times,” the governor said at a Friday afternoon news conference in Des Moines.

The latest detections involve three turkey farms and a chicken laying operation of about 1 million birds. Iowa's first outbreak surfaced in mid-April.

The state of emergency authorizes the use and deployment of all available state resources deemed reasonably necessary by Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey to track and monitor the disease and establish restrictions on the movement of poultry into and within Iowa. Resources will also be directed to contain the spread of the virus through depopulation, disinfections, and disposal of livestock carcasses.

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Northey said Iowa established an avian influenza fund about five years ago for testing, surveillance and outreach for farmers affected by the virus, but he said there was only about $137,000 left in the fund. “We will certainly need some dollars,” he said.

Help may be coming from the federal government.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Friday afternoon announced that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has given Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack authority to issue emergency assistance for poultry and egg farmers hit with the virus. Roberts and the other leaders of the House and Senate ag committees had requested Vilsack be given the go-ahead a day earlier.

As for the emergency federal funds, Dr. John Clifford, the USDA's chief veterinarian, earlier this week said OMB had already authorized spending $84 million in funds from the Commodity Credit Corporation. Along with $15 million USDA already had on hand, he said the department has spent about $99 million to indemnify farmers for their losses and to battle the virus.

“I applaud OMB for recognizing the urgency and gravity of this situation,” Roberts said in a press release. “I'm glad these producers who suffered significant losses will get the assistance they need to help them move forward and begin rebuilding. I also applaud poultry and egg producers for proactively doing everything within their power to protect the health of their flocks.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers the risk to people from HPAI infections in wild birds, backyard flocks and commercial poultry to be low. No human infections with the virus have been detected in the U.S. and there is no food safety risk for consumers, officials say.

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