When it comes to vulnerability to a possible bird flu outbreak, Idaho appears to be perched low on the infection pecking order. With only two large chicken houses, the state's Idaho Pandemic Influenza Response plan (IPIR) in place, and significant geographic distance from worldwide migratory bird routes, the state seems comfortably removed from contagion by the H5N1 virus.
But Dr. Uwe Rieschl, the head of Boise State's Center for Health Policy, estimates the chances of a bird flu pandemic reaching Idaho as "a definite maybe." For a true pandemic to threaten high rates of population mortality, Rieschl said, a new virus would have to meet three conditions simultaneously: lack of human antibodies, the ability to "easily jump" from another species to humans, and "easy transmission" from one person to another. For these three conditions the best answer is "yes, no, and 'not that we know of.'"
Yet Rieschl worries. This virus, he said, "has a propensity for mutation. It loves to mutate," and could take on a form similar to the one that produced the lethal worldwide epidemics of 1918, 1957-58 and 1969-70. Rieschl remains certain that "the clock is ticking, but we have no idea of what time it is" in terms of H5N1 crossing the bird-human barrier. And then, even if it does, he points out that the new strain might not be highly contagious.
"From an agricultural standpoint, Idaho is probably somewhat less vulnerable than a lot of other states." said Wayne Hoffman, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Agriculture. Hoffman said the IDOA has been actively cooperating with the Centers for Disease Control and, World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as the state and federal agencies responsible for homeland security. The state is working with the USDA on the development of a national tracking program that could speed up identification of flocks of poultry but not individual birds.
Hoffman advises concerned citizens to read the Idaho Pandemic Influenza Response Plan, now posted on the Department of Health and Welfare's Web page. The document, drawn largely from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control, defines responsibilities for pre-pandemic and pandemic services for federal, state and local governments, as well as roles for businesses and volunteer (including faith-based) organizations. The plan grimly acknowledges that previous influenza plagues killed up to 500,000 Americans and caused "more than 50 million deaths worldwide." Although the plan aims to assure no more than "a 30 percent workforce absentee rate," it does not specify financial outlays or anticipated costs in case of an outbreak.
Hoffman said he is unconcerned that if bird flu lands in Idaho, overlapping agencies might create the kinds of bureaucratic impasses and turf wars that characterized the Hurricane Katrina situation. "There are animal health emergency response plans already in place that would help us respond to any number of animal health emergencies," Hoffman said. "From our standpoint, our individual responsibilities as agencies of state government are very clear. If high pathogenic AI is identified in domestic poultry, the state would work cooperatively with USDA to contain and eradicate the disease."
University of Idaho virologist Kurt Gustin would like to see improved surveillance in terms of a better tracking system for individual birds. "Migratory birds are a major reservoir for transmission of this virus, and there are a lot of birds out there," he said. As to if and when the H5N1 virus could jump from birds to humans, Gustin shrugs. "It's anybody's guess."
Jack Merrill is the head of the Idaho Poultry Industry Federation and Merrill Poultry Farm in Paul, which has been in business since 1924. Merrill's operation supplies some 70,000 breeding chickens per year. Merrill has had meetings with DOA officials, and thinks that "we're pretty safe."
"Most of the producers have set up a controlled system so that the biosecurity is pretty tight," Merrill said. "We're all pretty good in terms of not letting strangers or wild birds on the place, and pretty safe in terms of keeping the flu out." Citing previous poultry infections on the East and West coasts, Merrill said some concern is healthy, "but I think it's a long ways from a flu pandemic."
Among the measures that Idaho officials would take in the event of an outbreak is the slaughter of all members of any infected flock. Merrill said the government has mentioned possible compensation to him, but not in any detail. "But if the flu hits, all the birds will be dead the next day, so you're not going to get a lot of warning about it," he said. Merrill stresses that cooking poultry and eggs effectively kills the virus.
"I'm a long ways from being an expert at this," Merrill said. "But the biggest thing to me is the public's fear of what might be, rather than what actually is. I'm more concerned about eating a duck or a goose this year rather than a chicken or an egg."
Rieschl also said there's a big difference between planning for time- and space-limited natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, and pandemics. "The outbreaks will not be a short event but will come in two or three waves, lasting one to two years," Rieschl said. "The pandemic will not impact the country in a regional or local way but will be nationwide, so that we can't just shift resources from one part of the country to another." Such an event would affect groceries and other supplies, Rieschl said, as well as key infrastructure personnel.
Bird flu planning, of course, is not without its critics. In Spirit Lake, Ingri Cassell sees in the government's plans an attempt to establish "medical martial law" by hyping a contrived emergency. Cassell, a contributor to the conservative newspaper Idaho Observer, refers to Dr. Sherri J. Tenpenny, an Ohio-based physician who maintains a Web site, birdfluhype.com, that takes regular pot-shots against bird flu pandemic talk.
"I have a strong suspicion of what our government is up to" in terms of pandemic planning, Tenpenny told BW. "This is an environmental crisis more than a health care crisis."
Conspiracy or not, Rieschl said the basic precautions remain the simplest: "Eat well, drink five or six glasses of water a day, and get lots of rest."