Welcome to Carolina Journal Online’s Friday Interview. Today the John Locke Foundation’s Donna Martinez discusses the bird flu with Dr. Martin Zaluski, veterinarian and assistant director of the Emergency Programs Division at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.The interview aired on Carolina Journal Radio (click here to find the station near you).

Martinez: First of all, what is the bird flu?

Zaluski: Bird flu is a naturally occurring virus that naturally infects wild birds. And this virus often doesn’t cause any kind of sickness in these wild birds, but when it spills into domestic poultry, that’s when we potentially have some problems.

Martinez: This has occurred in several countries outside the United States, correct?

Zaluski: Correct. Over 10 countries in Asia have been affected by bird flu at this point, and they have euthanized over 100 million poultry in those countries to try to eradicate that disease.

Martinez: Do we have any evidence that it has occurred anywhere in the United States?

Zaluski: No. The type of avian influenza that affects Asia has not been found in the United States.

Martinez: Why is this considered so dangerous? From what I read and hear, it looks like health officials and veterinarians like yourself generally refer to it as being a potential pandemic–much more dangerous than what I would call the traditional flu that we deal with every year. Why is that?

Zaluski: I’ll try to explain that fully, without getting too technical. The version, or the type of avian influenza in Asia, is considered a highly pathogenic, a high-path version of avian influenza. So that means that it can kill a large portion of domestic poultry. This highly pathogenic avian influenza can potentially mutate to a form that can infect people and where that infection–that flu infection–can then be passed from person to person. That has not yet happened, but the danger exists, and that’s what public health officials are most concerned about.

Martinez: Let’s clarify that because I have heard and read some conflicting information. Can bird flu actually be passed from one person to another person like traditional flu?

Zaluski: Not at this time. There is no hard evidence that this kind of flu can be passed from person to person, although there have been over 60 cases where the bird flu has been passed from animals or from poultry in Asia directly to people. But then that’s where that stops. There is no further person-to-person transmission.

Martinez: Okay, now of course North Carolina is an agricultural state. We have roughly 5,000 poultry processing plants and farms. So what is the role of the State of North Carolina here? Do we have regulations in place for these farms? Is there any way that they are working to try to protect the North Carolina poultry from something like this?

Zaluski: Yes.. We are doing a number a things, and the poultry industry, to preserve their own business, is doing a number of things. The Department of Agriculture has an avian influenza response plan that we would enact, or we would practice, once an outbreak does reach North Carolina, or if it reaches North Carolina. A couple of things need to be kept in mind however. Two of the greatest risks to North Carolina poultry is the spread through wild birds, through just general migration, natural migration. And that risk is mitigated or is minimized by the poultry industry because most of poultry in North Carolina is housed or is raised in confined housing. So there is very little exposure and contact between the wild life and our domestic poultry and our commercial poultry industry. So, that risk is minimized right there. Also, the poultry industry has very stringent bio-security where some facilities–you actually have to shower before you actually enter. So just in their regular way of doing business, the poultry industry strives to minimize an introduction of disease that would affect their flocks, whether it’s flu or otherwise.

Martinez: So it sounds like this is an example of a situation where private industry and the State of North Carolina are working together, each implementing a program and security protocol in order to try to protect us. It sounds as if too that some of the programs that are in place to protect against potential terrorist, bioterrorist attack are going to be able to help us secure ourselves from bird flu. Is that fair?

Zaluski: That’s absolutely correct. Many of the things such as bio-security–many of the practices that poultry industries and poultry farms employ, already will be very beneficial to reduce the risk to bioterrorism, as well as, like I said, other diseases. So you’re absolutely on the money.

Martinez: What would happen if there was–heaven forbid–an outbreak of this?

Zaluski: Let’s keep in mind, what we’re talking about right now is a bird flu like the kind in Asia that’s not spread from people to people. If we got an infection of high path, highly pathogenic avian flu in the North Carolina poultry industry, it would most likely be a localized outbreak that would affect a small number of farms. The birds on those farms would be humanely euthanized and disposed of. But we would establish a quarantine around the infected area, we would reduce agricultural traffic, and we would also enhance bio-security in that general vicinity. We would also do enhanced disease testing so we could pick up new infections should that outbreak spread. So, those are some of the practical things that we’d wind up enacting or putting in place once the disease takes place.

Martinez: What would happen to the commerce of the industry? Would we be able to sell our poultry?

Zaluski: We would be able to sell our poultry to domestic markets during the eradication phase. However, our international exports would in fact be blocked or ceased or severely limited during the outbreak phase, as well as a follow-up phase where we need to document that we, in fact, are free.