Poultry industry bracing for another winter threat of avian influenza

As cooler weather returns, so do heightened concerns about the poultry industry’s vulnerability to avian influenza. In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued their influenza preparedness and response plan to address the significant challenge to both large and small poultry flocks around the country. .

Since it was first identified in the United States in December 2014 in the Pacific Northwest, highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has been detected in commercial and backyard poultry flocks, wild birds, or captive wild birds in 21 States. With the last case of the spring outbreak identified in June, 2015, a total of 211 commercial and 21 backyard poultry premises had been affected. This resulted in the depopulation of 7.5 million turkeys and 42.1 million egg-layer and pullet chickens, with devastating effects on these businesses, and a cost to federal taxpayers of over $950 million.

Genetic analysis has shown that a comingling of migratory birds between northeast Asia and Alaska allowed for re-assortment of Asian HPAI strains with North American low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) viruses. The resulting Eurasian-American (EA/AM) HPAI viruses that infected wild birds and domestic poultry earlier in 2015 serve as a potential threat to poultry this fall and winter. Wild birds, particularly resident and migratory dabbling ducks, appear to be the reservoir for these viruses.

USDA, along with its partners, has learned a great deal through 2015 HPAI response activities. To prepare for additional outbreaks that could occur this fall or later, federal planning activities assumed a worst-case scenario beginning in September 2015, with HPAI occurring simultaneously in multiple sectors of the poultry industry throughout the nation. Under this scenario, 500 or more commercial establishments of various sizes across a large geographical area could be affected.

The USDA plan for preventing and responding to future HPAI cases, in collaboration with industry and state partners includes:

  • Promoting improved on-farm biosecurity practices in order to prevent future HPAI cases to the greatest extent possible;
  • Improving HPAI surveillance in wild birds as a means to provide “early warning” risk information to States and industry;
  • Expanding Federal, State and industry response capabilities, including availability of personnel, equipment, and depopulation, disposal and recovery options;
  • Improving our capabilities to rapidly detect HPAI in domestic poultry and to depopulate affected flocks within 24 hours to reduce the environmental load of HPAI viruses and their subsequent spread;
  • Streamlining the processes for payment of indemnity and the cost of eliminating viruses so that producers receive a fair amount quickly, to assist them in returning to production;
  • Enhancing our ability to communicate in a timely and effective way with producers, consumers, legislators, media, and others regarding outbreaks and other information; and
  • Making preparations to identify and deploy effective AI vaccines should they be a cost beneficial addition to the eradication efforts in a future HPAI outbreak.

Finally, it is important to note that this plan builds upon the Foreign Animal Disease Preparedness and Response Plans (FAD PReP) and Continuity of Business/Secure Food Supply plans that were already in place and used during the 2015 outbreak and are available on the APHIS website.  USDA resources are available at http://www.usda.gov/ and a search for “avian influenza.”

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