By P.J. Huffstutter
(Reuters) - Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts declared a state of emergency on Thursday, after federal agriculture officials confirmed a second farm site had tested positive for the rapidly spreading avian flu virus.
The declaration follows earlier, similar actions by governors in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, whose states have all been hard hit by the ongoing bird flu outbreak that has led to the culling of more than 33 million birds in 16 U.S. states.
Ricketts' move opens the door to releasing emergency funds and other aid to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture and other state agencies trying to contain the bird flu outbreak.
The U.S. poultry and egg industry has been grappling for months with the biggest outbreak on record of avian influenza in the United States. The H5 strains in the current U.S. outbreak pose a low risk to human health, experts say, and no human infections have been identified so far.
The second case in Dixon County - a farm with 1.8 million egg-laying hens - is physically close to the first farm that tested positive earlier this week, state officials said.
"Having a second farm in Nebraska confirmed to have HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza) is unfortunate but not completely unexpected," said Nebraska Department of Agriculture Director Greg Ibach, who added that the number of chickens that have either died or will be culled has grown to more than 3.5 million.
Both farm sites are owned by the same company, state officials said, but they declined to name the firm.
"This follows the pattern we’ve seen in other states when it comes to the spread of the virus," Ibach said.
Authorities do not know how the H5N2 virus reached the second Nebraska farm. The property has been quarantined, too, and state agriculture officials will be testing birds found within a 6.2-mile radius of the infected farm.
The spread of the highly contagious H5 virus is worrying to farmers and investigators, who have hoped that warmer spring weather would help lower the number of infections in birds and curtail the virus' spread.
But the outbreak has shown few signs of waning so far. On Monday, a strain of avian flu that had previously been found only in the Western United States cropped up in an Indiana backyard poultry flock.
(Reporting by P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago; Editing by Chris Reese and Matthew Lewis)