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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.
March 24, 2006
Good afternoon. Today's topic is avian influenza, which is a virus that is found naturally in wild birds, particularly certain species of waterfowl and shorebirds. These wild birds are considered to be natural reservoirs for the virus. Most types of the avian influenza virus cause little or no disease. However, a new strain identified as the highly pathogenic (meaning higher mortality rates) avian influenza with the designation H5N1, is frequently fatal to birds and can be transmitted to susceptible species.
Highly pathogenic H5N1 is the strain that we are seeing in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
It is increasingly likely that we will detect the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian flu in birds within the U.S. borders, possibly as early as this year.
The wild migratory birds can provide both a possible pathway through which the strain can be brought to North America and can also be an indicator of its arrival here. Therefore we have come up with an Interagency Strategic Plan to expand monitoring for and detection of the virus in wild birds as part of an effective early warning system. This plan is part of President Bush's National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Preparedness.
Our increased detection and monitoring is being carried out first in the Pacific Flyway and the state of Alaska because those areas are seen as the most likely migratory routes for the birds with possible infection.
The Interagency Strategic Plan establishes a comprehensive framework for early detection of the highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 in wild birds. The plan uses five major strategies -- testing wild birds that have died or are sick; sample testing of live wild birds; sample testing of hunter-killed birds; monitoring and testing of sentinel animals; and testing of environmental samples.
The Department of Agriculture is also part of this monitoring plan and early warning system. They have lead responsibility for poultry issues on avian influenza.
The Department of Health and Human Services is leading the way on issues related to human health, such as developing and stockpiling vaccines and anti-viral drugs for use IF necessary.
It is very important to note that the avian influenza is currently a bird disease. Only in a few situations - such as where people have chickens living in their homes or otherwise have significant contact with poultry - have people become infected. Thus the arrival of a bird disease is not cause for major concern. The more significant concern would occur if the virus changes to spread easily from human to human. That has not occurred.
A detection of H5N1 would simply confirm a disease in birds, it does not signal a pandemic among humans.
I'd be happy to take your questions now.
Jack, from uk writes:
It is VERY important to remember that researchers have no evidence that the Asian strains of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 are present in wild birds or poultry in the North American continent.
In fact, low pathogenic forms of H5 and H7 have occurred in both domestic and wild birds in North America and around the world in the past.
Researchers do not know what causes a fairly benign H5 or H7 strain to change into a strain that is highly pathogenic.
Gynnis, from Upland, California
Michael, from Powell, TN
This year Interior and our federal, state and local partners expect to test 75,000 to 100,000 birds for H5N1. Initially, well focus our efforts on Alaska and the Pacific Flyway, the most likely routes for this strain of flu to arrive in the U.S. Well also be closely monitoring other migratory routes.
Emily, from DeKalb, Illinois
It is important to remember that, at this point, this is a disease of birds, not people. People who have contracted the virus in other countries have gotten it from domestic birds after having extremely close contact with these birds, such as having poultry living in, or very near, their homes. This is much more unlikely in the United States.
If this virus is detected in birds in the United States, people can avoid contracting it by practicing common sense sanitation. People should always avoid handling wildlife if possible. If they do, they should thoroughly wash their hands. This protects not only from bird flu, which we call avian influenza, but also lots of other diseases that wildlife could be carrying.
chong, from Quahog RI
It is also possible that, while in Alaska, these birds from Asia could co-mingle with the birds that spend their summers in Alaska and then return to the Lower 48 in the fall. So it is possible that this virus could arrive in Alaska in the spring and the Lower 48 in the fall.
But let me reiterate that, at this time, this is a disease of birds, not people. People who have contracted the virus in other countries have gotten it from domestic birds after having extremely close contact with these birds, such as having poultry living in, or very near, their homes.
This is much more unlikely in the United States.
Randy, from Canada writes:
If it arrives, this is one way it could happen. Migratory birds could fly in the spring from Asia to Alaska. Those birds could co-mingle with migratory birds that leave Alaska in the spring and head further south to the Lower 48. Since Canada is situated between Alaska and our Lower 48, weve been coordinating closely with wildlife and health officials there and will continue to work with them on this important effort.
We have worked closely with Canada to enhance migratory bird habitat for a number of years so we already have a strong relationship.
Well also continue working closely with state wildlife agencies, who are important partners in our monitoring strategy.
Stan, from Boonville, MO
As a general rule, pet owners should take steps to ensure that pets do not interact with wildlife. This protects both wildlife and pets from each other. In addition to the threat of disease, pets can disturb, injure or kill wildlife, and wildlife can pose a similar risk to pets.
It always a good practice for pet owners to consult their veterinarian if there are signs of illness in their pets, such as reduced appetite and long periods of inactivity.
Stay informed of the changing status of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza and the risk it poses to people and pets. If the disease is detected in North America stay informed of geographic areas where it has been detected and public health recommendations available at pandemicflu.gov. Again, there is not yet any indication bird flu has arrived in the U.S., so there is not currently a cause for concern.
Sherry, from Portsmouth,Va. writes:
As always, common-sense safety and hygiene practices are a good idea when bird watching or handling wild bird feeders or equipment.
Use disposable or washable gloves when cleaning or handling backyard feeders, bird baths or other equipment. Feeders should periodically be disinfected with a 5-10 percent solution of household bleach. Wash hands thoroughly after handling feeders and other related equipment.
As a general rule, the public should observe wildlife, including wild birds, from a distance. This protects you from possible exposure to viruses and minimizes disturbance to the animal. Avoid touching wildlife. If there is contact with wildlife do not rub eyes, eat, drink, or smoke before washing hands with soap and water as described below.
These guidelines may change should the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus be detected in North America, or as more becomes known about its risk to humans.
If the disease is detected in North America stay informed of geographic areas where the virus has been detected and of public health recommendations available at www.pandemicflu.gov.
Brandon, from ohio writes:
Here are three useful sites.
The Alaska Hunter Fact Sheet is at http://www.adfg.state.ak.us/news/avian_bulletin_9-30-05.pdf
You can get the USGS Wildlife Health Bulletin at http://www.nwhc.usgs.gov/publications/wildlife_health_bulletins/WHB_05_03.jsp
And there is the World Health Organization Safe Food Preparation Guide at http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2005/1000172/index.html.
And remember: There is no evidence that anyone has been infected with the Asian bird flu or other bird flu virus by eating properly cooked eggs or other cooked poultry products derived from infected birds. Cooking poultry and wild game birds to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, or 74 degrees Celsius, will kill bird flu virus if it is present.
Kevin, from Cleveland, Ohio
H5N1 can only be transmitted through close contact with an infected bird or the birds feces. Therefore there is little risk to your birds if they stay indoors. As long as your birds have no contact with other birds, you can be assured they will not contract the disease. Let me reiterate that as a general rule, owners should ensure that their pets do not interact with wildlife. It is always a good practice for pet owners to consult their veterinarian if there are signs of illness in their pets.
Colin, from Altamonte Springs, Fl
Good things to have on hand are at least two weeks of basic food, water, flashlights and batteries. You need not go stock up on everything today. A good way to prepare is to buy something extra each time you go shopping and then set it aside in case of emergency.
You can get more information on how to prepare for emergencies, including an avian influenza outbreak among humans, at www.pandemicflu.gov.
You can also prepare by being informed about what avian influenza is and is not.
Kate, from Hardy writes:
Interior is a large, decentralized agency with over 70,600 employees and 200,000 volunteers located at approximately 2,400 operating locations across the United States and the island territories. DOI raises more than $10 billion in revenues collected from things like energy, mineral, grazing, timber and recreation fees.
Interior manages one in every five acres of land in America. If Donald Trump owned as much land as the Department of the Interior, he would own the entire Eastern Time Zone.
Donald, from Knoxville, Tennessee
All the Best, Donald
Thank you very much for your kind words. For the past 5 years, I have had what I consider the best job in government. As a lifelong conservationist who absolutely loves the outdoors, being Secretary of the Interior allowed me to see so many of the majestic places in this great country. Im quite proud of the accomplishments Interior and partners have made around the country from restoring habitat for endangered species to completing or getting underway more than 6,000 maintenance projects in our national parks.
I leave office next Friday. My husband and I look forward to returning to the mountains we love in the West.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavittt and I have been working together to prepare the nation for all of the eventualities involved with avian influenza. As we told the media at a press conference last Tuesday, we have the opportunity to educate, not panic, the public. My advice throughout our discussion today has been to stay informed and to consult the various websites that we will maintain with the most up-to-date information.
As we test 75,000 to 100,000 birds over the coming year, we expect 20 to 100 times when our initial tests will detect H5N1, and we will announce this information to the public. However, we will not know for a week or more, until further tests are completed whether this is the highly pathogenic form or a low pathogenic variety.
During this wait, the press and the public will need to realize two things. First, that is a disease of birds and not human at this point. And second, finding a bird with the disease does not signal a pandemic.
It is quite possible that we could have dozens of H5N1 reports with none turning out to be the highly pathogenic variety. These low pathogenic viruses do not even cause particular problems for birds and are not relevant to human influenza concerns. If the further tests confirm the occurrence of a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus, those initial response actions will be sustained, expanded or modified - again, in cooperation with affected federal, state and local officials.
Our testing of wild birds provides and early warning for the country. But with reasonable precautions, Americans should continue to enjoy and marvel at the beauty of wild birds.
It has been my pleasure talking to you today and my pleasure serving as President Bush's Interior Secretary.
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