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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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New Mexico agriculture, public health officials practice response to avian influenza

ALBUQUERQUE - Highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza, commonly called Bird Flu, has not yet been reported in North or South America but public health and agriculture professionals stay vigilant for cases developing in New Mexico.

The confirmation on Nov. 13 of an outbreak of the H5N1 strain, which can be fatal to humans, at a turkey farm in England demonstrates the real danger that exists in the international world of agriculture.

To help prepare for a response to an outbreak of the disease, the New Mexico Department of Health, New Mexico Department of Agriculture and the New Mexico State University College of Agriculture and Home Economics, through the Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center, recently held training exercises in Albuquerque for various state and federal agencies that would respond to an outbreak of the potentially zoonotic virus.

"While there is no evidence right now of an outbreak of Bird Flu, in New Mexico, the public should know that New Mexico is aggressively preparing for such an event," said Paul Ettestad, state public health veterinarian with the New Mexico Department of Health. "During this meeting we participated in two tabletop exercises - one focusing on the agricultural response and the other dealing with the public health response to an avian influenza outbreak."

Participating in the exercise were representatives from NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service, New Mexico Livestock Board, New Mexico Department of Agriculture, USDA Wildlife Services, USDA Veterinary Service, New Mexico Department of Health, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and New Mexico's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

"The overall objective of this meeting was to have agency representatives get to know each other and learn what each agency's jurisdiction is and what their responsibilities would be if an outbreak occurred," said Jeff Witte, director of agriculture biosecurity with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture. "It is better to become acquainted before an incident or disease outbreak. If or when an outbreak occurs they will have an awareness of each other's response capabilities. New Mexico has one of the most proactive multi-agency response teams in the nation."

The group used a scenario designed by the Center for Naval Analysis for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to address the spread of the disease in animals, and a scenario designed by Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Ga., to address the public health response plan.

"This was a very good exercise," said Billy Dictson, director of the office of biosecurity at the Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center, housed at NMSU. "We divided the people into the state regions they are from so they would be working with the people they would work with in a real situation. Now we have four teams of multi-agency groups that can be deployed if an outbreak occurs in their region."

Dictson and Witte have been instrumental in getting emergency response agencies to discuss potential agricultural hazards and how they would respond to the situation.

"Now we are beginning to involve people from the human health side with people from agriculture," Dictson said. "Most agriculture incidents that could occur will involve people from public health as well as animal health and food safety."

For more information about avian influenza in New Mexico, visit the joint agency Web site: www.nmbirdflu.org.