For the second time in less than three years, avian flu is moving through industrial-scale US chicken facilities. Republicans in power seem too fixated on budget-cutting to notice.
First, President Donald Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan pushed a health care plan that would have slashed funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency that tracks farm flu outbreaks and works with the US Department of Agriculture and local authorities to "minimize any human health risk" they cause.
That effort collapsed, but now Trump is taking a more direct whack at flu-tracking funding. A couple of Politico reporters got hold of a budget-cutting proposal the Trump team is circulating in Congress. The document lists $1 billion in suggested cuts to the US Department of Agriculture's discretionary spending in 2017—which is separate from the "21 percent proposed reduction for USDA that the administration included in its 2018 budget outline released earlier this month," Politico reports.
Among the cuts being sought for 2017, the Trump team seeks to extract funds from a USDA program funded by Congress in 2015 to address the flu problem that swept through the Midwest that year, triggering the euthanasia of 50 million birds and causing egg prices to spike. Congress had allocated $1 billion for it, of which $80 million is left. Given that avian flu is on the march again, one might think it prudent to keep that cash around, devoted to monitoring the 2017 outbreak. Trump's budget people have other ideas—they want to take away $50 million of the $80 million left over. Politico quotes the document:
The response to the FY15 [fiscal-year 2015] outbreak is complete, and USDA should still have enough balances to respond to the two recent HPAI [high pathogenic avian influenza] outbreaks in TN [Tennessee] this year.
Of course, this year's avian flu, albeit a less virulent strain, has broken out of Tennessee, swept into Alabama and Kentucky, and has now alighted in Georgia, the nation's No. 1 chicken-producing state. It would be interesting to know what Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, Trump's still-pending pick to lead the USDA, thinks of that proposed money-saving measure.
While the CDC insists that the risk that people will come down with the current avian flu strain is "low," it does work with the Department of Agriculture and state authorities on tracking outbreaks. That's because health officials have been warning for decades that massive livestock confinements make an ideal breeding ground for new virus strains, including potentially ones that can jump from bird to human, and then spread among humans. Meanwhile, a different strain of avian flu has swept across Japan, South Korea, and China. It has killed 140 people but has not proved capable of spreading from human to human.