WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Department inspectors at US airports don't have enough training to keep a deadly strain of bird flu from getting into the country, a union official alleges, citing the handling of live birds found in the luggage of a passenger from Vietnam.
Gaps in front-line protections were on display this week when a customs official at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport was confused about how to properly quarantine the three cages of birds, Alejandra Scaffa, vice president of the National Association of Agriculture Employees, said Friday.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Suzanne Trevano said that while the birds were not put in a previously designated quarantine area, they were placed in a filtered and sealed box and left overnight in a room that only certain officials were allowed to enter.
Scaffa, a Homeland Security agriculture specialist at JFK, said inspectors have received only scant training on how to handle possible bird flu carriers.
One senior Homeland Security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the department would ramp up its training and intensify other preparations when a domestic bird flu outbreak appears imminent.
Milder strains of bird flu commonly appear in the United States, but officials now worry about H5N1, a deadly variation spreading through Asia, Europe, and Africa. It has killed 110 people.
Ron DeHaven, head of the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the government is concerned about ''millions of international passengers coming into the United States -- any one of which could be bringing poultry or poultry products . . . that could be infected."
Trying to stop the disease at the border is one responsibility that clearly falls to Homeland Security, said James Carafano, a national security fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.