Computer Program Helps Locate, Fight Bird Flu

US poultry experts using Google to beat bird flu

Poultry experts are turning to sophisticated computer imaging to help them prepare for the expected arrival of the deadly bird flu virus in the United States later this year.

Geographic Information System (GIS) technology is being used to pinpoint the location of commercial poultry flocks, feed mills and processing plants, said Sherrill Davison, professor of avian medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

The information will be used to help create buffer zones around an infected flock and contain the H5N1 strain when it makes its U.S. appearance.

Since the beginning of the year, experts have also been using Google Earth, which combines satellite imagery, maps and the company's search engine to span the globe. It gives extra details including the location of buildings, schools and roads near large chicken and turkey farms and production facilities.

"Twenty years ago we had to drive around the countryside and find the chicken farm that reported a disease, but now everything is on a mapping system," Davison told Reuters in a recent interview.

"Now, we can very quickly, within about an hour, know exactly how many farms are in an (affected) area. Then we can know which farms to send teams to for extra sampling.

"It may be there is an infected flock but they are out in the middle of nowhere and so the probability of spread to another farm is very minimal," she said.

The H5N1 virus that has infected birds and chickens in Asia, Africa and Europe and caused more than 120 deaths there is expected to arrive in North America this summer via migrating birds flying from Asia to Alaska and southwards.

Testing of wild birds is already underway in Alaska but no signs of the bird flu virus have yet been found.

Davison and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania were among the first to develop GIS technology to monitor poultry flocks in the state in 1998.

They have since used it to detect and control -- by swift culling -- minor outbreaks of avian diseases in Pennsylvania, which ranks third in the United States in chicken production.

Other U.S. states have since adopted the system.

"Many states do have this type of a mapping system which helps with a rapid response that reduces the spread of disease," Davison said.

"We began using Google Earth to help us locate poultry farms more exactly. In the past we knew the chicken house was on a parcel of land but now we can zoom in and tell exactly where on the property it is. ... It is another tool to add into our rapid response program."

Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.

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