Posted: January 19, 2006
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Article SummaryIn January 2006, I received a Guestbook comment asking what I thought of this December 28, 2005 “guest column” in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. My answer begins, “As you rightly point out, the author of this column is very confused – or trying to confuse others – about the role of the U.S. poultry industry in the risk of a flu pandemic, and about the role of U.S. poultry industry employees in preventing such a pandemic.” The column is posted here only so readers of the Guestbook entry can read it for themselves.

Avian flu defense can enlist poultry workers

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 28, 2005

This Atlanta Journal-Constitution “guest column” is criticized at length in “Pandemic risk and the U.S. poultry industry,” a January 19, 2005 Guestbook entry on this website.

It seems that every week Americans learn of another outbreak of avian flu. There is no way of knowing when the disease will come to our shores, but when it does, the consequences for Georgia could be devastating.

Should avian flu mutate into a disease that spreads from person to person, state health officials warn that as many as 1.14 million Georgians could become clinically ill and more than 6,000 could die. Some of the first victims could be the women and men who earn their living raising, catching and processing live poultry in Georgia’s immense poultry industry. It does not have to be that way.

Instead of becoming the first victims of a flu pandemic, poultry workers could join the ranks of the first responders battling to contain it.

To its credit, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been helping officials in Georgia and other states prepare for avian flu. As early as February 2004, CDC was offering guidance and recommendations to agencies charged with eradicating outbreaks among poultry. However, despite the fact that one poultry worker may come into direct contact with literally thousands of birds each day, there has been little effort to mobilize America’s 200,000 poultry workers to help combat avian flu. Here are some ways they can:

  • Poultry workers must be trained to immediately identify infected birds in order to isolate and destroy them. But it cannot stop there. Workers also need “whistleblower” protections so they can report infected birds to authorities without risk of reprisal from their employers.

    The fear of reprisal is a particular problem for the many undocumented workers hired by poultry companies. In July, immigrant workers in North Carolina gathered to attend what they thought was a training program offered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Instead it was a sting operation by the Department of Homeland Security to nab undocumented workers.

    Against this backdrop, federal officials must decide whether the rewards of capturing undocumented poultry workers is worth the damage it could cause to our nation’s health. The choice should not be difficult.
  • From safety goggles to disposable particulate respirators to protective clothing, poultry workers need the personal protective gear necessary to avoid infection. However, absent a legal requirement, many poultry companies refuse to provide much of this equipment to workers. They must be compelled to do so.
  • Poultry workers must have ready access to vaccines and anti-viral medications as they become available. It makes little sense to immediately vaccinate physicians who will treat infections and not poultry workers.
  • Ideally, a poultry worker who is infected would be able to visit a physician and, if necessary, stay away from work as long as necessary. However, many poultry workers earn low wages and receive no health insurance benefits. Absent financial support, they have no means to care for their families or themselves. Faced with this prospect, some may believe they have no choice but to deny their illness in order to keep their paychecks.

There is precedence for the federal government providing a degree of compensation to companies that need to isolate and destroy infected poultry.

Every Georgia family has an important stake in the fight against avian flu. In addition to the devastating impact it could have on the health of Georgia families, it would also be a staggering blow to an industry that now contributes more than $13 billion every year to the state’s economy.

Here in Georgia, and other poultry-producing states, America’s 200,000 poultry workers ought to become part of our nation’s first line of defense against avian flu. The only question is whether President Bush and other elected officials are ready to offer the leadership to see that they are.

Stuart Appelbaum is president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents 20,000 poultry workers in the southern United States

Copyright © 2005 by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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