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Alabama officials concerned about spread of avian flu virus

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. --  Alabama officials say they are keeping a close watch on the avian flu outbreaks that have been reported in Alabama and Tennessee.

The state has been actively planning in case such an outbreak occurs, Alabama Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan told WHNT News 19.

McMillan said protocols include growers “depopulating” chickens that may be exposed to the avian flu virus, and agriculture officials setting up a 6-mile quarantine zone around the property that monitors movement in and out.

Poultry is a $15 billion industry in Alabama and the state is the country’s third-largest poultry producer.

Avian flu was reported in Lincoln County, Tenn. on March 5 and in the past week in Alabama. State officials say they’ve identified cases in Lauderdale, Jackson and Madison counties.

McMillan said the range of the flu being found in different location – as opposed to an adjoining firm – is a source of concern. The flu strain is thought be carried by wild waterfowl, geese and ducks. The wild birds' feces is blamed for sickening chickens.

"It’s a major source of concern," McMillan said. "We had seen it in other part of the country. We had felt until now that we were sort of isolated between the major flyways, because it’s spread by wild waterfowl feces and that’s an issue that we've been able to dodge until now."

McMillan said commercial growers do aggressive poultry testing and are prepared to kill a flock or more to prevent spread of the virus.

But, there is far less control over people with backyard chickens.

The state estimates thousands of people around Alabama keep chickens. If a backyard flock is infected, McMillan said, the quarantine rules apply and state agriculture workers will go door-to-door investigating if neighbors also have chickens and seeking information if other birds are sick.

McMillan said officials don’t know if the virus will be found in other flocks, but he stressed the food supply is not affected by the outbreak.

"There’s no danger in consuming poultry," he said. "As I tell people, my favorite food is fried chicken and I’m not backing off a bit on that."

Nationally, there have been a number of bird flu strains over the years, but no recorded cases of humans contacting the flu through consuming the birds.