In a letter to the Department of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, Minority Leader Harry Reid D-Nev. And Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, urged USDA to implement a comprehensive surveillance system and dedicate needed resources so that the nation can be prepared to combat highly pathogenic avian influenza.
Last month, a USDA Inspector General report found gaps in USDA's plans for monitoring, documenting, and coordinating responses to a possible outbreak of HPAI. The letter was also signed by Senators Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Barack Obama, D-Ill., Hilary Clinton, D-N.Y. and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
"It is not enough for the federal government to simply dictate to the states what needs to be done and then tell them 'you're on your own'," says Reid. "The states need the help of their federal partner to ensure they have the resources they need and to oversee any multi-state efforts that would almost certainly be necessary in the event of an outbreak of avian flu."
"We need leadership from USDA in preparing for the arrival of avian flu" Harkin says. "USDA's failure to develop a comprehensive monitoring program leaves us in the dark about areas of the country where better surveillance is needed. And USDA's inadequate assistance and cooperation with states and industry leaves our nation unnecessarily vulnerable."
The senators asked USDA to provide states with clear standards and resources for developing their avian flu response plans. Currently, much of the responsibility for responding to a possible outbreak of avian flu is left to individual states. The senators also expressed concerns that USDA has not done as much as is needed to prepare for outbreaks in multiple states, which would require extensive interstate coordination and to increase awareness of the disease among backyard poultry owners.
"It's unacceptable to leave states with such a heavy burden to supply funding and personnel to respond to any avian influenza outbreak," says Harkin. "Avian flu will not be confined by states' borders and USDA needs a comprehensive surveillance and response plan - with adequate resources - which accounts for multi-state outbreaks."
The senators stressed the need to provide more information to backyard poultry owners on how to identify symptoms of avian flu. Non-commercial poultry is at higher risk of contracting the disease since these flocks are not confined, and the senators say USDA should be working with states to identify communities where maintaining backyard flocks is a common practice so owners can keep an eye out for symptoms of avian flu.