As avian flu continues to spread in southeast Asia amid fears of its arrival in surrounding regions, the United States is taking steps to ensure that the country is prepared if the virus appears in North America.
On a recent trip to southeast Asia, Michael Leavitt (search), the U.S. Secretary of Health & Human Services, acknowledged that a global bird flu pandemic is possible, if not likely, due to variations in standards of poultry processing.
"We are worried about places where we are not seeing processing done with [a high] level and degree of quality. It only takes one spark to set this virus off."
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The U.S. government will soon release its plan for the federal response to a bird flu outbreak, but there are already some measures in place to prevent such an outbreak from ever happening.
North Carolina has begun drills to practice its response to an outbreak, and Georgia has been randomly testing birds for the past few years.
By some measures, such pre-emptive measures may be working. Tommy Irvin (search), Georgia's Commissioner of Agriculture, says "Some say we're real lucky. We probably are. But I think having a good program makes luck work."
Others predict that if the virus does make its way to U.S., it won't have a major impact. Richard L. Lobb (search) of the National Chicken Council says that the virus isn't spread by handling or eating poultry as food. He also says that the quality of American health and processing standards would be effective in preventing the spread of any bird flu virus.
"Even if we were to have it, we'll take care of it immediately and there would be no implications for food anyway. You don't get this from handling food or eating food."
That said, concerns that the virus might already be in human form by the time it reaches American shores have world leaders and health organizations urging the increased production of vaccine.
Current estimates are that it will take six months to gather enough of the vaccine. But by then, many fear, it may be too late.