U.S. states lift bird-show bans and quarantines as reports of virus mount overseas

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a plan in place should the highly pathogenic form of avian influenza, H5N2, make a resurgence, but it hasn't so far. That's heartening for state officials in two states, Ohio and Minnesota--so encouraging, in fact, they're starting to lift some of the restrictions that were put in place earlier this year at the height of the outbreak that caused the loss of 48 million chickens and turkeys.

On Dec. 15, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health announced that it has lifted the last of the quarantines that were placed on 108 farms hit by avian influenza. "Minnesota poultry growers have worked tirelessly alongside animal health officials to eliminate this disease from our state," said Bill Hartmann, the State Veterinarian and executive director of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, in a statement.

Two days later, the Ohio Department of Agriculture rescinded a ban on bird shows in that state, which it had originally intended to keep in place until next April. The ban was meant to prevent large gatherings of birds in the state, even though there were no confirmed cases of avian influenza there.

"Ohio is home to more than 50 million domestic birds which makes our state particularly vulnerable to an outbreak," said Ohio Agriculture Director David Daniels in a press release. "Thankfully, the disease never took hold here."

Despite encouraging signs that the outbreak is waning, USDA and state officials continue to be vigilant. In September, the agency unveiled a plan that included strengthening biosecurity practices, implementing faster detection methods and quickly eliminating infected flocks should another outbreak occur.

A month later, the USDA awarded contracts to Ceva Animal Health and Harrisvaccines to manufacture an H5N2 vaccine for an emergency stockpile--an idea that has been championed by Ceva and other animal health players but that has generated criticism from some experts who fear the vaccine won't offer broad enough protection. Still, the contract helped turn Harrisvaccines into a hot property; Merck ($MRK) announced it will acquire the company in November.

Avian influenza remains a concern worldwide. On Dec. 14, France confirmed outbreaks of two strains, H5N1 and H5N2, according to the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Other strains of the virus have been reported in Bulgaria, China and Vietnam, the center reports.

- here's the Minnesota board's statement
- access the Ohio Department of Agriculture's press release here
- get more from the University of Minnesota