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Utah officials prepare bird flu plan

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MANTI — Utah agriculture officials are preparing a memorandum of understanding outlining how various parties would respond if avian flu broke out among the 1.5 million turkeys in Sanpete County.

Earl Rodgers, state veterinarian, said the ultimate signatories to the agreement would be Commissioner of Agriculture Leonard Blackham, the Sanpete County Commission and the Sanpete County Landfill Cooperative.

A decision to draft the memorandum grew out of a meeting in early January of officials who might become involved in responding to a bird flu outbreak.

Attending the meeting in Manti were Blackham; other staff from the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food; representatives from the Utah Department of Health and Utah Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste; officials from Moroni Feed, the turkey grower's cooperative; and officials from Sanpete, Sevier and Juab counties, where Moroni Feed has operations.

The group's main concern was poultry, not people, said Ralph Bohn, section chief for the Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste. The only human deaths from bird flu have occurred in underdeveloped areas of Asia where people practically live with their fowl. "It appears you have to have intimate contact" with birds to be infected, he said.

"It's not a pandemic yet, even in Asia," Rodgers said. "It hasn't spread from person to person. But we don't want it to develop that capability."

Bohn said that during informal discussions, state agencies realized that in a worst-case scenario, "there might be hundreds of thousands of dead birds in a matter of days."

In such an event, federal or state officials might direct that the birds be disposed of in landfills, but local landfills aren't prepared to safely dispose of such an onslaught, he said. That realization led to the Manti meeting.

Avian flu is divided into two categories: highly pathogenic and low pathogenic. Both classifications are highly contagious, but symptoms are less severe in the low strains. There are numerous strains of high-path virus. The most feared is H5N1, the strain that caused the deaths in Asia.

If a high-path infection broke out, the first step would be defining a perimeter that encompassed all affected birds, Rodgers said. Birds within the perimeter that didn't die from the virus might need to be euthanized.

"We would try to keep the animals that were positive in the smallest geographic area possible," ideally a single turkey shed or on one farm, Moroni Feed spokesman Kent Barton said. The Moroni Feed cooperative consists of about 60 private farms and two company-owned breeder farms.

If the outbreak were limited, and the threshold might be about 10,000 birds, according to Sanpete County landfill chairman Garry Bringhurst, it might be possible to compost the carcasses in place.

"Composting rapidly destroys the avian flu virus. It's the least expensive, safest and preferred solution," Barton said. Moroni Feed has conducted successful experiments with composting but hasn't attempted it on a large scale.

If an outbreak were too big to handle through composting, birds would be taken to the Sanpete County Landfill, located on a remote state road about 15 miles southwest of Manti.

The landfill has identified an isolated area where, with three or four days' notice, a large pit could be dug, Bringhurst said. No decision has been made as to how the landfill cooperative would recoup costs, but it might seek state assistance or charge farmers who disposed of birds, he said.

A high-path outbreak would have to be handled much like a hazardous-materials incident, Bohn said. People picking up the carcasses on farms would wear protective clothing and breathe through respirators. Workers and trucks would be decontaminated before re-entering the community.

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