Sunday, June 11, 2006

Avian Influenza And The City

Is this a city government prepared to deal with the problem of avian influenza (bird flu)? You tell me.

For the past couple of days, as I walked my dog (think major City Ave., with major pedestrian traffic), I've noticed a dead bird--not a pigeon; something much smaller--on the sidewalk. My first concern was to insure that my dog doesn't go anywhere near that area. [Let's just say that the memory of a certain puppy who, one day in the park oh so many years ago, returned triumphantly with a dead rodent in his mouth is still totally fresh in my memory. As are my subsequent frantic calls to various ERs to inquire if they treat Yersinia Pestis in dogs. Yes, because that's the kind of person I am--I see a dead rodent, I think bubonic plague outbreak.]

My next concern was bird flu. I wasn't sure what the protocol was for reporting a dead bird, so I asked a policeman. He said I should talk to the store owners in the area since they're the ones responsible for maintaining the sidewalks, and ask them to call 311 (the number for city government information and non-emergency services). Since the stores were closed, I decided to call 311 myself. I shouldn't have done that.

I spoke with Maurice and informed him of the location of the dead bird, and, more importantly, the need for the Health Department (actually, it's the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, or DOHMH) to came and collect the bird and test it for bird flu.

First bombshell, there's a rule that says that the dead body cannot be removed for TWO days after the report is made. I asked Maurice for the rationale behind this let's-just-leave-a-carcass-on-the-sidewalk-for-a-bit rule, but he just kept repeating that that's what it says in the instructions.

Second bombshell, Maurice, still reading form his script, assured me that, once the DOHMH collects the dead bird, they will test if for West Nile Virus (WNV). Um, WNV??? I made sure to point out that WNV and bird flu are two different things, and that it's paramount the bird be tested for the latter. No can do! The script said that, and I paraphrase, bird flu hasn't been detected in the U.S., and to rest assured that the DOHMH is monitoring the situation. [By means other than testing dead birds, that is. Maybe they can tell if a bird is infected via ESP.]

To sum up: Dead bird on sidewalk in the middle of the city; must be left in place for 2 days after it's reported to 311; the DOHMH only tests dead birds for WNV, not bird flu. Brilliant, and most reassuring!

Since I kept insisting that the dead bird needs to be tested for bird flu, not WNV, Maurice couldn't process my report. All he could do was to transfer me to the Department of Sanitation who took the information on the bird location, and promised to have a crew remove and discard it. [My report number is 2006ML9303630.]

I did ask Maurice to give me the number/ID for the 2-day rule and the no bird flu testing regulations so that I may read up on them. He didn't have that information, only, and I quote, "a set of rules from the DOHMH".

I went searching on the DOHMH's site, and look what I found about reporting dead birds (emphasis mine):

If I see a dead bird in New York City, should I report it?

Dead birds can be reported to 311 during West Nile virus season (which runs from May 1 through October 31 each year). While individual dead birds may be collected and tested for WNV, a smaller proportion of those birds may also be tested for avian influenza. Year round, the DOHMH will work with other city, state and federal agencies and partners to investigate clusters of dead birds that are reported in New York City.

H5N1, the strain of bird flu causing bird illness overseas has not been found in birds or humans in New York City, or anywhere in the western hemisphere at this time. Federal and state agriculture agencies are monitoring poultry and migratory birds for avian influenza. DOHMH is working closely with these agencies so that H5N1 avian flu could be detected quickly if it appeared in New York City.

So, the DOHMH does indeed test for bird flu. Unfortunately, it neglected to include that crucial piece of information in the set of rules handed out to 311 operators. Since the script Maurice was basing his triage decisions on contained the incorrect information, the DOHMH will never find out about my dead bird report.

Which brings me to the grandiose and nebulous declarations that the DOHMH will work with other city, state and federal agencies and partners to investigate clusters of dead birds that are reported in New York City and DOHMH is working closely with these agencies so that H5N1 avian flu could be detected quickly if it appeared in New York City. You don't say.

How exactly is the DOHMH working to investigate these reports? What are the specifics? Shouldn't the first priority be to insure that field reports of dead birds, you know, reach the DOHMH? Of the $2,466,271 Pandemic Influenza federal funding allocated to the City in phase 1 for FY 2006, how much was spent to insure that people like Maurice, the 311 operator, are properly instructed on how to process reports of potentially infected birds? [So far, based on my experience, I would venture to guess not a penny.]

I've never been one to place much trust in government bureaucrats, but even I find this level of incompetence (disinterest?) stunning. An inadequate reporting mechanism, coupled with an inexplicable rule designed to maximize the risk of contamination--the perfect strategy to combat a potential pandemic.



At 12:15 AM, Blogger Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

My sister in NYC checked the city's West Nile Virus page ( after I linked this, and found where it says on the dead bird reporting form that you should dispose of the bird if they don't remove it within two days, and then there are instructions for handling dead birds.

So, putting the link you checked and the one she checked together, it looks as if the intended policy is: 1) You call them. 2) They collect all dead birds and test them for West Nile Virus. 3) They test a subset for bird flu. 4) They are not supposed to leave the bird in place for two days. 5) But if they should leave the bird in place for two days, you should give up on waiting for them and get the bird safely disposed of.

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