US bird flu case puts chicken and turkey farms on high alert

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Farms that raise turkeys and chickens for meat and eggs are on high alert and taking steps to increase biosecurity, fearing a repeat of a widespread 2015 outbreak of bird flu that killed 50 million birds in 15 Killed states and cost the federal government nearly $1 billion.

The new fear is fueled by the discovery, announced on February 9, of the virus infecting a commercial flock of Indiana turkeys. The flock’s 29,000 turkeys were killed to prevent the spread of the virus.

Indiana officials said Tuesday that a second flock of 26,473 turkeys near the first infected farm is suspected of having the same virus. Tests are underway to confirm this. The second site is already within a quarantine zone set up for the first farm.

The USDA has also confirmed the presence of avian influenza in a commercial broiler flock in Fulton County, Kentucky and is awaiting results from a possible second case about 124 miles northeast in Webster County, Kentucky. A flock of mixed species in a backyard in Northern Virginia is also positive for the virus. State officials have quarantined areas and the birds at the new positively identified sites are being killed and removed.

The poultry industry and government officials say they have plans to stop the spread that was revealed in 2015 more quickly, but urge caution as the strain of the virus is potentially deadly to commercial poultry. Egg, turkey and chicken prices could increase and availability could decrease if birds on enough farms became infected.

“Now that we have a confirmed case of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the commercial poultry industry, it is definitely seen as a high-risk time,” said Dr. Denise Heard, Poultry Veterinarian and Vice President for Research at the US Poultry & Egg Association. “I’m confident we can handle this situation better and I’ll keep my fingers crossed that this remains an isolated case, but I would hope for the best and be prepared for the worst.”

Health officials say no human cases of avian influenza virus have been detected in the United States and the disease is not an immediate public health concern. The virus can be transmitted to humans from infected birds, but such infections are rare and have not resulted in sustained human outbreaks.

The 2015 outbreak resulted in producers killing 33 million laying hens in Iowa, the country’s top egg producer, and 9 million birds in Minnesota, the country’s top turkey producer, with smaller outbreaks in Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The disease sent egg and turkey prices soaring across the country for months, with egg costs rising 61% between May and July 2015 and boneless, skinless turkey breast prices rising 75%.

The outbreaks were considered the costliest animal health disaster in U.S. history, costing the government nearly $1 billion to remove and dispose of infected birds and paying government compensation to producers for the lost birds.

The strain currently circulating is H5N1 and is related to the 2015 virus. It has been circulating in Europe and Asia for months and was found in wild birds in Canada a few weeks ago and in a commercial flock in Canada a week before the US case was identified.

Migratory wild birds often carry strains of avian influenza and they are often low pathogenic, meaning they do not kill the birds. Sometimes these strains can enter domestic herds and mutate into more deadly viruses. The H5N1 that’s now spreading from wild birds is already highly pathogenic, meaning it’s deadly in the first place, said Dr. Yuko Sato, veterinarian and assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Diagnostics and Livestock Medicine at Iowa State University.

US surveillance efforts have identified the virus in wild birds in New Hampshire, Delaware, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and South Carolina in recent weeks, making it clear that it is widespread in the environment.

The virus is easily spread via the faeces of wild birds and can be carried into commercial flocks on the feet of workers or on equipment, which is why a high level biosecurity protocol has been activated in commercial operations across the country. They have enacted new safeguards to prevent deadly bird flu infections, often referred to as HPAI, and isolate them when they do occur.

“With the increased preparedness efforts undertaken by the USDA and its partners since the 2015 HPAI outbreak, we are fully prepared to handle this discovery,” said Lyndsay Cole, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, of the deals with outbreaks in the US

Federal and state officials are working with the poultry industry and have initiated steps such as an immediate quarantine that restricts the movement of poultry and equipment used to move birds in and out of certain areas around an infected coop — usually around 10 kilometers initially — and eradication of the virus by killing and removing birds at the site of infection. The tests take place in the quarantine area of ​​both wild and domestic birds. Disinfection will be carried out on the affected farm to kill the virus and tests will be carried out to confirm that it is virus-free.

Producers who want to be eligible for government compensation payments in the event of a disaster must have a biosecurity protocol in place that is regularly updated. To help with this, the USDA has developed a 14-point biosecurity plan for producers that is reviewed annually and reviewed every two years by state agriculture agencies, Sato said.

In Iowa, a state with 49 million chickens, egg farmers are working with state and federal agencies to keep the disease off their flocks, said Kevin Stiles, executive director of the Iowa Poultry Association and Iowa Egg Council.

“IPA maintains open communication specific to biosecurity best practices and offers surveillance testing. We are confident that our producers are willing and able to manage their herds,” he said.

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