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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.

Gale Norton
Secretary of the Interior

March 24, 2006

Gale Norton

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:
what countrys did bird flu get to

Gale Norton
Between November 2003 and March 2004, HPAI H5N1 spread to at least nine countries in Southeast Asia, causing huge losses of poultry, widespread economic loss and some loss of human life. By August 2005, bird flu outbreaks, mainly in domestic poultry, were reported in eight territories and republics in Russia; up to five provinces in Kazakhstan; Hosvgol, Mongolia; and Lhasa, Tibet. In the fall of 2005, this new strain was detected in Turkey, Romania, Croatia, and parts of European Russia. For the most up-to-date information there is a website that you can visit. It is

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 writes:
Is Bird flu in America?

Gale Norton
There are many types of flu that affect birds here in the U.S. and around the world. Most of them are not very dangerous to even the birds that carry them. There is one strain that is causing concern worldwide. It is highly pathogenic H5N1 that is causing the concern. This strain of flu has not been detected in any bird in the United States. But we are increasing our monitoring and testing of wild birds so that we can know early on if this strain arrives in the United States. Even if this strain does arrive in the United States – and it is increasingly likely that it will -- this does not mean that a human pandemic has begun. This is a disease of birds, not people, at this point.

Michael, from Powell, TN writes:
How is the bird flu a problem for the Interior Department?

Gale Norton
As the principle conservation agency in America, the Department of the Interior is responsible for monitoring wildlife, including migratory birds. Because H5N1 is a disease of birds and could be brought to America by wild migratory birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, both Interior agencies, have been and are expanding their monitoring and testing of wild and migratory birds to detect, as early as possible the arrival of H5N1 in the U.S.

This year Interior and our federal, state and local partners expect to test 75,000 to 100,000 birds for H5N1. Initially, we’ll focus our efforts on Alaska and the Pacific Flyway, the most likely routes for this strain of flu to arrive in the U.S. We’ll also be closely monitoring other migratory routes.

Emily, from DeKalb, Illinois writes:
How can we avoid the bird flu? In other words, how can we fight this disease and stop ohters from getting it? Emily S. Age 12 Grade 7 Huntley Middle School

DeKalb, Illinois

Gale Norton
Hello Emily, thanks for the question. Knowledge and preparation are two areas that can help people fight this disease. Learn about avian influenza and how wild birds often carry kinds of flu that do not hurt them. Remember that only some kinds of bird flu are dangerous. Help your family and neighborhood prepare by getting information at

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 writes:
When will the bird flu hit the US.

Gale Norton
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. This virus has been detected in migratory birds in Asia. Some birds from Asia migrate to Alaska in the spring. So, it is possible that birds carrying the virus could arrive in Alaska this spring.

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:
Are the governments of North America working together for a possible outbreak of avian flu? I hope the migratory birds don't head our way...

Gale Norton
We’ve been working quite closely with governments around the world, including Canada. If bird flu arrives in the United States, it will likely be through Alaska.

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, we’ve 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.

We’ll also continue working closely with state wildlife agencies, who are important partners in our monitoring strategy.

Stan, from Boonville, MO writes:
Children have contracted bird flu in other countries because their "pets" were infected. Is it likely that children in the US will contract bird flu similarly?

Gale Norton
There have been reports of domestic cats becoming infected with this new strain of avian influenza H5N1. It appears that dogs are not susceptible.

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 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:
If the Bird Flu does reach the USA, should we stop putting bird seed in the feeders, or is it carried only by chickens and ducks and geese?

Gale Norton
At this time, the highly pathogenic H5N1 avain influenza virus has not been detected in North America and there is no reason to believe that backyard birds are a threat to public health.

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

Brandon, from ohio writes:
Will hunting still be safe if bird flu arrives here?

Gale Norton
There are no documented cases of wild birds directly transmitting avian influenza to people. There is currently no indication that waterfowl or other wild birds hunted in the United States carry highly pathogenic H5N1. While experts believe the risk to hunters is currently low, scientists cannot guarantee that there is absolutely no risk. So it is always wise to practice good hygiene when handling or cleaning any wild game. Hunters should take the precautions listed in the fact sheets referred to below, participate in harvest surveys where they occur, and keep up with new information on avian influenza. There are lots of places hunters can go for more information.

Here are three useful sites.

The Alaska Hunter Fact Sheet is at

You can get the USGS Wildlife Health Bulletin at

And there is the World Health Organization Safe Food Preparation Guide at

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 writes:
My wife and I have Cockatiels, they never leave the house. Could they catch Bird Flu in the summer time when the windows are open or could we give it to them if we catch regular flu? Thank you

Gale Norton
First, the common flu strain that affects humans is not a threat to your indoor birds.

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 writes:
When would it be the right time to start really preparing for the bird flu (i.e food supply, masks, cleaning, drugs, etc..) and also, if there were to be a pandemic; what preperations have the United States Government taking in order to combat such a serious issue? Thank you.

Gale Norton
Now is always the right time for families to be prepared for emergencies that might affect them. And by this I don’t mean only avian influenza. They could be natural disasters or even terrorist attacks, but the same preparations are helpful for many types of emergencies.

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

You can also prepare by being informed about what avian influenza is and is not.

Kate, from Hardy writes:
What does the department of interior do?

Gale Norton
The Department of the Interior is the nation’s principal conservation agency. Our mission is to protect America’s treasures for future generations, provide access to our nation’s natural and cultural heritage, offer recreation opportunities, honor our trust responsibilities to American Indians and Alaska Natives and our responsibilities to island communities, conduct scientific research, provide energy and mineral resources, foster sound use of land and water resources, and conserve and protect fish and wildlife. The work that we do affects the lives of millions of people; from the family taking a vacation in one of our national parks to the children studying in one of our Indian schools.

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 writes:
Secretary Norton,Thank you for your service to our country I wish you the best in your future endeavors.

All the Best, Donald

Gale Norton
Hello Donald. I will be in Tennessee on Monday. But I’ll be on the other end of the state. I’ll be in Memphis.

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. I’m 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.

Gale Norton

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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