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Delaware expert weighs in on the avian flu threat at congressional hearing

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The current H5N2 avian flu outbreak that began in December has hit 21 states across the country. Though the virus has not touched the Delmarva region, where an estimated 100 million broilers are now being raised, voices from Delaware contributed to Wednesday’s conversation in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Various experts on public health and homeland security testified, including Jack Gelb, director of the avian biosciences center at University of Delaware, who was invited by the committee's ranking member, Delaware Senator Tom Carper.

In his opening statement, Carper said, “At the end of the day, we all need to work together to stop the spread of avian flu. We must all continue to act with a sense of urgency to assure Americans, along with people all over the world, that our eggs, as well as the meat from our chickens and our turkeys, are safe to eat.”

Gelb stressed the importance of strengthening biosecurity measures and emergency response plans.

“Biosecurity is probably the single greatest weapon we have against avian influenza but unfortunately, biosecurity is not consistently applied by all farmers and all poultry companies," said Gelb.

He also noted the need for more research on vaccinations for avian flu in poultry, but cautioned against prematurely using them. So far, there hasn’t been proven efficacy of the vaccines in development.

"But vaccination is a slippery slope and we need to very carefully determine whether or not to go down this road. The effect on trade, the fact that the vaccines aren’t particularly effective can push the virus and drive it to further mutations," said Gelb.

The H5 avian flu is highly contagious and airborne, easily spread through clothing and sharing of farm equipment. Ducks and geese are also known to be reservoirs of avian flu without showing symptoms, which include ruffled feathers, decrease in egg production and sudden death.

State officials have taken measures to also keep chickens away from waterfowl, including excluding waterfowl entries at the Delaware State Fair poultry competitions. A different strain of the virus was last detected in the Delmarva region in 2004, and only three cases were found.

The spread of H5N2 has slowed in recent weeks, but could potentially pick up again in migratory season.

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