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Diagnostic Laboratory is the state's first line of defense against avian flu

 

If the highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza ever comes to Kansas, diagnosticians at K-State’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory will be the first to know.

The lab, which is part of K-State's College of Veterinary Medicine, is the first place samples would be tested if there were a suspected case of avian influenza in Kansas.

Gary Anderson and Tanya PurvisDr. Gary Anderson, director of the lab and professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology, says that the lab has been certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to perform avian flu testing. The lab also tests for swine, equine and canine versions of influenza.

"K-State's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory is known for thorough and timely diagnostic services," Anderson said. "And in the case of bird flu, were it to make it to Kansas, time would be of the essence. We presently have five employees who are certified by the National Animal Health Laboratory Network to perform avian influenza testing, which allows handling of a large number of samples and reporting the results within a short time frame."

Avian influenza was recently in the news because of two pre-Thanksgiving outbreaks in Britain. To date, the pathogenic strain of avian influenza -- also known as H5:N1 -- has been reported in Southeast Asia and a handful of European countries, but not in the U.S. It affects chickens, turkeys, ducks and other poultry and is particularly contagious among domestic flocks, although the disease is thought to originate with migratory fowl.

"From a poultry standpoint, our biggest concern is that migratory birds from the North will mix in the summer breeding grounds and spread avian flu when they fly south for the winter," said Scott Beyer, a K-State poultry expert and associate professor of animal sciences and industry. "However, this has not yet happened in North America, which is somewhat of a surprise.

According to Beyer, if the bird flu does make it to the United States, poultry producers have been taking precautions against the disease for some time.

"The chicken and turkey industries screen all flocks for avian influenza prior to sending them to the processing plant," Beyer said. "For many years, the U.S. policy has been never to allow any form of avian influenza to persist in the birds. So even the most benign form is not allowed to exist in flocks. If we do have an H5:N1 outbreak, which is the highly contagious kind, our system would pick it up very quickly."

If anyone sees a sick bird or birds, K-State also manages the Avian Influenza Hotline at 800-566-4518. The hotline is a cooperative service provided by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the K-State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. All questions concerning dead birds or birds that appear to be sick can be referred to this number.

A single dead bird should not cause significant concern, Anderson said.

"We start to worry when there is a large group of dead birds or migratory waterfowl in a relatively small area," he said.

Anderson encourages anyone with questions to call the hotline so those manning the phones can help determine whether the death or sickness is an indicator of serious disease.

 

Photo: Gary Anderson and Tanya Purvis, microbiologist III, review diagnostic bacteriology samples at K-State's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. The lab also tests for the viruses that cause avian flu. Photo by Dave Adams, College of Veterinary Medicine.