By this time, you’re no doubt aware that a “highly pathogenic” avian flu is spreading across North America. “Highly Pathogenic” avian influence means that it spreads rapidly and death rates in birds are high. While this is of extreme concern to those raising poultry for meat and eggs, the good news is that this strain, HPAI H5N2 is not a threat to human health.
In North America, the current strain of avian flu has turned up in flocks in Canada and many places in the United States. It has hit over 100 large scale farms to date, resulting in the deaths of 15.4 million turkeys and laying hens. Iowa has lost about a quarter of its 60 million birds to flu outbreaks, including one farm with 5.5 million layer hens and several turkey farms. That sounds like a lot, and it’s an enormous impact on the folks raising the birds. But to give you some perspective, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said the outbreaks in Iowa translate to 5 to 6% of the total number of laying chickens in the United States.
While it’s not completely clear how this current flu is being spread, wild birds and migratory waterfowl are considered potential sources. Once the flu has arrived in an area, it spreads quickly and easily. It can travel on manure, egg flats, crates, farming materials and equipment, and with people who have unknowingly picked up the virus on their clothes, shoes or hands. When poultry come in contact with contaminated surfaces or materials, they contract the disease and continue its spread. The virus doesn’t do well in the heat, so with summer coming on, the danger should decrease. But USDA officials believe the virus will survive the summer, and we’ll see a rise in outbreaks in the fall.
Given the potential impact on poultry and food production, we all need to know what sick birds look like, do what we can to prevent our birds from getting sick, and then if they do get sick we need to report it immediately so that steps can be taken to prevent further spread. To help you help your fellow farmers and ranchers, here are symptoms, prevention methods, and who to call for help.
Avian Flu Symptoms
Birds that have contracted avian flu will show these symptoms:
• Lack of energy and appetite
• Decreased egg production and/or soft-shelled or misshapen eggs
• Swelling of the head, eyelids, comb, wattles, and hocks
• Purple discoloration of the wattles, combs, and legs
• Runny nose, coughing, sneezing
• Stumbling or falling down
• Sudden death without any clinical signs
Protecting Your Flock
Biosecurity steps are actually pretty straight forward, and they are things you should do all the time, whether or not there’s known threat heading your way. Here’s what the experts recommend:
1. Keep Your Distance.
Restrict access to your property and your birds. If visitors have birds of their own, do not let them near your birds. You should also do your best to keep your birds from having contact with wild birds and migratory water fowl that can carry germs and diseases.
2. Keep it Clean.
Wash your hands before and after working with your birds. It’s also recommend that you wear clean clothes, scrubbing your shoes with disinfectant, and cleaning and disinfecting equipment that comes in contact with your birds. Clean clothes and disinfected shoes and equipment is something that we all probably balk at.
3. Don’t haul disease home.
Buy birds from reputable sources. Then keep new birds separate from your flock for 30 days. If you take your birds to the fair on an exhibition, keep them away from your flock for 2 weeks after the event.
4. Don’t borrow disease from your neighbors.
Don’t share garden equipment or poultry supplies with your neighbors or other bird owners. If you have to borrow things, clean and disinfect them before they reach your property.
5. Know the signs and report sick birds.
Don’t wait! If your birds are sick or dying, call your local cooperative extension office, your veterinarian, or your State Vet or animal/poultry diagnostic laboratory. You can also call the USDA at 1-866-536-7593 and they can put you in touch with a local contact who can help you.
National Response Plans
According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the United States has the strongest AI surveillance program in the world. Federal and State partners and the poultry industry respond quickly to evidence of the disease focusing on:
1) Quarantines – restricting movement of poultry and poultry-moving equipment into and out of the control area;
2) Eradication – affect flocks are humanely euthanized to prevent the spread to other areas;
3) Disinfecting – kills the virus in the affected flock locations;
4) Testing – confirming that the poultry farm is AI virus-free. and
5) Monitoring – wild and domestic birds are tested in a broad area around the quarantine area. USDA also is working with its partners to actively look for and test for the disease in commercial poultry operations, live bird markets and in migratory wild bird populations.