Bird flu has reared its ugly head in a big way this year with at least 12 states confirming cases of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) in 21 domestic U.S. flocks so far. That includes the country’s leading egg producer, Iowa, where officials have confirmed infections in one commercial turkey farm and one backyard chicken and duck flock. What’s more, HPAI is now present in all four major North American flyways, raising the risk of wild birds spreading the disease to even more commercial operations.
HPAI was first confirmed in the U.S. in February in a commercial turkey flock in Indiana. At least five other flocks have since confirmed outbreaks in the state, with over 170,000 turkeys culled so far. Other cases of HPAI reported in commercial poultry in the U.S. include a broiler flock in Kentucky that resulted in more than 284,000 birds being culled. Earlier this month, a commercial layer operation in Delaware with more than 1 million birds was hit by HPAI, as well as a layer flock in Maryland.
March also brought the first confirmed case of HPAI in a commercial mixed species flock in South Dakota, which also marked the first case found in the Central Flyway. Commercial flocks in the Atlantic Flyway and Mississippi Flyway have previously been identified. While no commercial flocks in the Pacific Flyway have been found, one case in a bald eagle was confirmed earlier this year.
For those not familiar, HPAI, aka “bird flu,” is a highly contagious viral disease affecting several species of food producing birds (chickens, turkeys, quails, guinea fowl, etc.), as well as pet birds and wild birds. Due to the threat it poses to the poultry industry and U.S. food supplies, USDA requires all exposed birds in a flock be culled, even those that show no signs of infection. The avian influenza virus can be introduced in a flock by several mechanisms. Waterfowl and shorebirds are known, natural carriers of HPAI and can carry the disease over vast distances across migratory routes in close proximity to poultry farms or small/backyard flocks.
The last serious outbreak of HPAI in the U.S. happened in December 2014 and ran through June of 2015. By the time it was all said and done, some 50 million birds were lost to the disease itself or to depopulation. Those losses represented approximately 12% of the U.S. table-egg laying population and 8% of the estimated inventory of turkeys grown for meat in what the USDA called a “historic animal-disease event.” In total, the 2014-2015 outbreak cost $879 million in public expenditures and the U.S. egg and poultry industry more than $3 billion to eradicate the disease from poultry production.
USDA officials urge anyone involved in poultry production to increase measures to prevent their flocks from becoming infected and review biosecurity plans to ensure the health of their birds. In addition to practicing good biosecurity, all bird owners should prevent contact between their birds and wild birds and report sick birds or unusual bird deaths to State/Federal officials, either through their state veterinarian or through APHIS’ toll-free number at 1-866-536-7593. APHIS urges producers to consider bringing birds indoors when possible to further prevent exposures. APHIS has materials about biosecurity, including videos, checklists, and a toolkit available HERE. General APHIS guidance includes:
- Discourage unnecessary visitors and use biosecurity signs to warn people not to enter buildings without permission.
- Ask all visitors if they have had any contact with any birds in the past five days.
- Forbid entry to employees and visitors who own any kind of fowl.
- Require all visitors to cover and disinfect all footwear.
- Lock all entrances to chicken houses after hours.
- Avoid non-essential vehicular traffic on-farm.
- After hauling birds to processors, clean and disinfect poultry transport coops and vehicles before they return to the farm.