After hearing the latest news of more devastating cases of poultry losses in his state, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad called the current avian influenza (AI) outbreak an “epidemic.”
On May 1, Iowa declared a state of emergency due to the problem. The latest detections in Iowa involved three turkey farms and a chicken laying operation of about 1 million birds. Over 5.5 million birds have been lost in Iowa alone, the nation’s top egg producing state. Minnesota and Wisconsin had already declared emergency status in April. Nationwide total AI losses are more than 20 million birds.
“AI has been percolating relatively quietly in the poultry industry for most of the year. In early March, the first case of the highly-pathogenic H5N2 strain of AI in the Mississippi flyway was confirmed by USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) on a commercial turkey operation in Minnesota,” said John D. Anderson, Deputy Chief Economist, American Farm Bureau Federation. “Looking ahead, the big question is whether or not highly-pathogenic AI will impact the broiler industry. So far, broilers have not been impacted significantly. The two commercial chicken operations to have confirmed AI cases have both been layer operations. Of course, there are substantial numbers of broiler facilities along the Mississippi flyway, mostly in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri. As the migration season winds down, the likelihood of a full-blown outbreak in the broiler sector should be diminishing, but the possibility remains a real source of uncertainty for the livestock sector this year.”
Three worrisome strains of avian flu have been detected in U.S. birds so far. The strains are related to a virus that circulated in Asia and Europe in 2014. In December 2014, they were detected in the Pacific Migratory Bird Flyway, in Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, Idaho and Nevada. These viruses are classified as highly pathogenic, meaning they are extremely infectious and fatal for birds. Since then, the problem has exploded nationally.
“This is obviously a very troublesome situation for the producers affected. We are working very closely with state ag officials and producer groups,” said Tom Vilsack, USDA Secretary. “We want to make sure folks are using every bit of biosecurity they can to prevent this from happening. We have a booklet that is available through APHIS that lays out the strategies people can take to prevent this from occurring. We want to make sure that when it does occur it is detected as quickly as possible so we are in a position to depopulate the affected flocks, provide reimbursement and make sure we sanitize the area properly to contain this the best we can. We are also working on vaccines, but AI has a way of mutating and we are hoping we do not see an eastern impact and we hope that export markets remain as open as they can be. We are concerned that 11 or 12 countries have proposed a countrywide ban on poultry from the United States. We don’t think that is consistent with science or international regulations. We will continue to work as best we can to make sure export markets remain open.”
The current avian influenza outbreak has not been found in Ohio, but is a concern.
“Our highest priority at this time is on protecting our flocks through heightened biosecurity measures that will help prevent introduction of this disease on Ohio’s farms,” said Jim Chakeres, with the Ohio Poultry Association. “Those of us in the egg and poultry farming community remain deeply concerned about the continued spread of avian influenza. While there is no risk to humans from the disease, and eggs, turkey and chicken remain safe to eat, the impact on the nation’s flocks and on the industry overall is devastating,”
This has been strictly an avian disease outbreak — human illness has never been reported in relation to this outbreak in North America, Europe or Asia, and poultry products such as chicken and turkey are safe to eat. Still, producers and poultry owners should take all necessary measures to protect their birds, said Mohamed El-Gazzar, poultry veterinarian for Ohio State University Extension who is also an assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine.
“The first thing is to try to avoid direct contact between any domestic or captive type of bird and wild migratory birds,” El-Gazzar said. “Producers are generally very good about protecting their birds, but they need to be aware that there’s an increased risk.”
Backyard poultry owners should consider keeping their birds in enclosed covered runs until the threat from the viruses passes, he said. Poultry owners should not be complacent about these viruses even though they have not been detected in the Midwest, El-Gazzar said.
Samples from wild birds collected during the recent hunting season have not yet been analyzed, and few additional samples will be collected until summer. So, although there is no evidence that these viruses might be circulating in Ohio, authorities can’t be certain the state is completely free of them, he said.
“While we don’t think there are these highly pathogenic viruses in the Mississippi flyway, we don’t really know for sure,” he said.
Anyone who keeps or breeds raptors should also be aware of these viruses, as they have been detected in birds of prey out West, too, El-Gazzar said. Other precautions El-Gazzar recommends include:
- In addition to avoiding direct contact between migratory and domestic birds, it’s important to prevent indirect contact, as well. “For example, if there’s an open body of water nearby that attracts wild birds, don’t go out, potentially step in fecal material, and then come back to your birds and transmit an infection,” he said.
- Protect birds from other poultry populations. “We don’t encourage mixing flocks, mixing ages or mixing species,” El-Gazzar said. “Visitors to your bird flock, whether they’re from the neighborhood or from other farms, are highly discouraged.”
- Commercial producers or backyard poultry owners should boost insect and rodent control efforts. “Make sure your houses are animal-proof, so that raccoons, opossums or any varmints can’t get in, and bird-proof so that wild birds can’t get in.” Such biosecurity measures also include keeping feed and water clean.
It’s especially important to protect domestic birds from wild duck populations, El-Gazzar said, because they often don’t show any signs of disease even if they are carrying the virus.
“If you’re a poultry owner and have ducks and chickens and turkeys in the same flock, that is a highly risky situation,” El-Gazzar said. “Particularly if ducks are involved, that requires increased biosecurity for the time being.”
Even if poultry owners cannot isolate their flocks from migrating birds and other poultry species, it’s at least important to be aware of the increased risk of the virus, El-Gazzar said.
“At the first sign of a problem, alert authorities so things can be checked out,” he said. “If you notice increased mortality in an alarming manner, contact the Ohio Department of Agriculture. They will speak with you and determine if what you’re seeing matches the pattern of the highly pathogenic influenza.”
The animal disease hotline at ODA is 800-300-9755 or 614-728-6220. Updates on the Pacific flyway avian influenza outbreak is online at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website, at www.aphis.usda.gov. For additional information on poultry biosecurity measures, see the service’s poultry biosecurity website at www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/birdbiosecurity/biosecurity/basicspoultry.htm. OSU Extension also has a fact sheet, Biosecurity for Poultry, online at ohioline.osu.edu/vme-fact/0009.html.
“We’re not trying to scare anybody,” El-Gazzar said. “Currently we don’t have any problems with this group of viruses here in Ohio, that we know of.
“We’re just saying be aware of the problems out west, which might represent some risk to the Ohio poultry producers and backyard poultry owners. Just be aware and do everything you can to protect your birds.”