While the hysteria surrounding avian influenza has calmed a bit, regulatory agencies and the poultry industry aren't taking a break from testing. With migratory birds winging their way across North America, over the next several months some 1,500 wild birds will be tested for the H5N1 virus in Arkansas.

“We're doing this in conjunction with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission,” says Phil Wyrick, head of the Arkansas Poultry and Livestock Commission, which oversees the $29 billion industry in the largest poultry-producing state in the nation. “Game and Fish will gather the birds and we'll test them.”

Wyrick says he wouldn't be surprised if birds with avian flu show up somewhere in the South over the next few months. That shouldn't sound any alarms, however — over 140 different strains of avian flu are found in migratory birds.

“Most of those strains aren't a concern (to humans). We're mostly concerned with the H5N1. We will find additional avian flu out there. But I doubt it will be the dangerous-to-humans kind.

“I'd compare this situation to someone asking, ‘Hey, you got the pox?’ Well, is he referring to chicken pox or small pox? There's a huge difference there — kind of like a common cold and pneumonia. That's what we're talking about between high pathogenic strains and low pathogenic strains of avian flu.

“Thus far, a pair of swans up in Michigan was found to be infected. After they ran a lab test (on the genetics), the flu strain was found to be low pathogenic.

“The same is true for some ducks in the (eastern United States). Again, we're really worried about high pathogenic strains.”

This year, all birds from commercial flocks slaughtered in Arkansas have been tested for high-path avian flu. The industry “insisted on that and testing has ramped up over the last few months. Every test has shown up negative. We don't have the flu.”

Wyrick says conventional wisdom is that if high-path H5N1 arrives in Arkansas, it will come through someone who has traveled overseas.

“It won't come from our commercial flock and, so far, migratory birds haven't (vectored) it. The real fear is someone overseas already infected with a mutated H5N1 traveling here. From him, the disease could spread around the United States.”

Even if a positive high-path find was made in migratory birds, there are still significant barriers for the disease in North America.

“Our poultry industry is enclosed and bio-security is very strict. It's almost impossible for a migratory bird to make contact with any commercial operation.”

What about the upcoming duck season?

“Health workers are very concerned that hunters follow some good, common sense. Clean your game and then wash your hands thoroughly. Hunters often ask, ‘what exposure do I have to these birds?’ I'd think it's a good idea to clean up properly after handling wild game of any sort.”

If the disease does show up, Wyrick's agency will take the lead on bio-security.

To prepare, and in conjunction with the Arkansas Department of Emergency Services, Wyrick's agency recently received a grant from the Homeland Security Department for $150,000.

“Beginning in November, we'll be conducting drills with Emergency Services and local (disaster-response) teams across the state.

“There will be other live drills in the spring. We conducted two of those drills last year and four drills the year before. We've been at this awhile.”

Another grant, this one from the USDA, has allowed Wyrick to advertise for another poultry expert to expand the testing program even further.

“We're really concentrating on building a solid testing foundation — equipment and personnel. The combined grants are around $500,000. About $200,000 is a renewable annual grant. With the extra $300,000, we purchased equipment in our diagnostic laboratory. Now, that lab's capabilities are second to none and nationally accredited.”

A mobile command emergency vehicle set up to handle such situations has also been purchased. The vehicle will allow “us to roll to any worrisome incident and have (the statewide emergency communication system) online. It will also carry equipment needed to decontaminate a farm, quarantine it and, if necessary, depopulate it. We're being pro-active on this. USDA has pointed Arkansas out as one of the most progressive states in being prepared for this disease.”

Wyrick, while insisting he isn't a “waterboy” for Arkansas' massive poultry industry, says the industry has “proven to be responsible. They recognize it's incredibly important to continue to have the confidence of the consumer. Domestic poultry sales remain very strong in the United States.”

Even so, things can turn quickly. Wyrick points to Italy as an example.

“Last February, Italy had a positive H5N1 find in some migratory birds. Their domestic poultry consumption dropped by about 60 percent. Even though that was unwarranted, it happened.”