Homeland Security: Not ready for bird flu

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Homeland Security Department inspectors at U.S. airports don’t have enough training to keep a deadly strain of bird flu from getting into the country, a union official is charging, citing the handling of live birds found in the luggage of a passenger from Vietnam.

Gaps in front-line protections were on display this week when a Customs official at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport was confused about how to properly quarantine the three cages of birds, Alejandra Scaffa, vice president of the National Association of Agriculture Employees, said Friday. Vietnam is among the nations that have been the hardest hit by the deadly disease.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Suzanne Trevano said while the birds were not put in a previously designated quarantine area, they were placed in a filtered and sealed box and left overnight in a room that only certain officials were allowed to enter.

She said inspectors routinely have stopped and screened passengers and fowl entering the United States from flu-afflicted areas.

Scaffa, a Homeland Security agriculture specialist at JFK, said inspectors have gotten only scant training on how to handle possible bird flu carriers. Official guidance generally consist of updates on where the flu has spread, and a 30-minute video that advises wearing protective masks and gloves when dealing with risky passengers or cargo, she said.

“Otherwise, DHS has not done a thing,” Scaffa said.

One senior Homeland Security official said the department would ramp up its training and intensify other preparations when a domestic bird flu outbreak appears imminent. That is not the case now, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Referring to last year’s hurricane that received a sluggish federal response after devastating the Gulf Coast, Scaffa predicted a domestic bird flu outbreak would “wind up to be like Katrina – they’re going to try to fix it, and it’s going to be too late.”

Milder strains of bird flu commonly appear in the United States, but officials now worry about H5N1, a deadly variation spreading through Asia, Europe and Africa. It has killed 110 people, and scientists fear it could mutate into a form that spreads more easily among humans.

Scientists believe the deadly flu would most likely be carried into the United States by a wild bird migrating from a country suffering from an outbreak.

But Ron DeHaven, head of the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the government also is concerned about “millions of international passengers coming into the United States – any one of which could be bringing poultry or poultry products … that could be infected.”

Trying to stop the disease at the border is one responsibility that clearly falls to Homeland Security, said James Carafano, a national security fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. USDA and the Health and Human Services Department will have broader responsibilities in the federal response to bird flu, including detecting the disease in birds and keeping it from spreading among the nation’s poultry.

Trevano, the Homeland Security spokeswoman, said officers frequently practice how to handle a potential flu carrier, have daily online meetings and updates, and “are constantly being updated as the avian flu threat changes.”

During the incident Thursday night at JFK, a Homeland Security agriculture inspector found three cages of 12 birds hidden inside luggage of a China Airlines passenger from Vietnam, according to a report provided by Scaffa.

A Customs officer took the birds. Their cages were placed in a cardboard box and taken to an interrogation and search room for safeguarding overnight, the report shows.

Trevano said officers did so after consulting with an Agriculture Department veterinarian. She said the inspectors wore respiratory masks and latex gloves during the incident and disinfected the area after the cages were removed.

“We followed the procedures,” she said.

Scaffa said she believes the birds should not have been stored in a room generally used for other kinds of suspicious travelers.

“We’ve potentially exposed the whole airport, the whole country, potentially,” Scaffa said.

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