SALEM, Ohio — So far, Ohio poultry producers have dodged an outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) that killed millions of birds in the U.S. just a few years ago. But that doesn’t mean producers should let their guard down.
“We’ve survived another migration of the wild fowl through our area,” said Sam Custer, Ohio State Extension educator for Darke County and Ohio Poultry Team member, who noted the majority of the wild ducks and geese have already made their migrations north. “Our next real scare is September and October, when the wild birds head south again.”
Andrew Bowman, Ohio State assistant professor and veterinarian, said there are no active highly pathogenic cases in the U.S. right now, worldwide there is no shortage of active cases, primarily in Europe and Asia.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report May 11 identifying challenges federal agencies face in reducing the potential harmful effects of avian influenza.
In 2014, 2015 and 2016, outbreaks in the U.S. led to the death of close to 50 million chickens, turkeys and other birds. And in March, a highly pathogenic strain of the bird flu was found in a Tennessee chicken breeders flock contracted to Tyson Foods. As a result, 73,500 birds were euthanized to stop the virus from entering the food system.
No highly pathogenic strains of avian flu have been detected in Ohio among animals or people. The closest reported cases of a highly pathogenic strain of avian flu were found in a flock west of Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 2015.
Not a threat to humans
The respiratory disease is highly infectious and potentially fatal in poultry, and although it can be passed on to humans, it has not been detected in humans in the U.S. But there has been a recent spike in human bird flu infections in China.
Mohamed El-Gazzar, Ohio State assistant professor and poultry Extension veterinarian, said the most important thing for consumers to note is the virus is highly pathogenic to poultry, not humans in the U.S.
“For now, this is not a public health risk for the consumption of meat and eggs,” he said.
According to Change-Won Lee, an Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center virologist, influenza strains change all the time, making it difficult to develop an effective vaccine. “We have to change the environment to prevent this kind of outbreak from happening annually.”
Bowman said in a time like this — when we don’t have an active outbreak — it’s common for producers to think the threat is gone.
“The threat is always present, especially with cases going on in other countries,” he said. “We need to stay vigilant.”
Custer said in the years prior to the 2014 outbreak, he could walk onto any of the poultry farms in his area, on any given day, unannounced. Today, that is not the case. Poultry producers in Darke County — which has three of the state’s largest egg-laying operations — have really ramped up their biosecurity, he said.
Any truck entering or exiting the facility to haul manure or collect eggs has to go through an on-site wash, and at some facilities, disinfectant is used on truck tires. Employees shower when they arrive and put on uniforms cleaned either on site or by a professional cleaning service. Employees are also not allowed to have backyard flocks of their own.
“They are taking all precautions,” said Custer. Some facilities have ponds near them, put in for aesthetic purposes. Producers have taken extra precautions to keep wild ducks and geese away from those ponds.
“We know that the flu viruses are constantly circulating in wild bird populations and worldwide,” said Bowman. He noted wild waterfowl as a primary reservoir for the highly pathogenic influenza. “Whether it’s a bird visiting the farm or a traveler … farms need to be serious” about biosecurity, he said.
Control and contain
Biosecurity is the first line of defense and probably the only line of defense when it comes to protecting birds against influenza, said El-Gazzar. “We really don’t have effective vaccines and we really don’t have any treatment, so we are left with almost one option — which is outbreak control and disease eradication,” he said.
An eradication strategy requires a collaboration between the USDA, state authorities — like the Ohio Department of Agriculture — and poultry producers, explained El-Gazzar. The goal is to identify cases of HPAI, develop control zones around those cases, dispose and depopulate affected birds, and continue to test all birds within the control zone — expanding the control zone as needed.
El-Gazzar said, with the control zone, they hope to contain and eradicate the problem. However, there are two bottlenecks — depopulation and disposal.
The USDA has a goal of depopulating infected birds within 24 hours of a confirmed diagnosis and disposal of birds within 72 hours of confirmed diagnosis.
El-Gazzar said producers of broilers and turkeys have the option of in-house composting — preventing the birds from leaving the facility and spreading the disease. However, egg producers do not often have the space within the hen houses to perform in-house composting.
El-Gazzar said the OARDC has been working on composting options; however, due to a lack of funding, the technique has not been mastered yet. Agricultural agencies have also been working with landfills as an option for disposal of affected birds.
“The biggest thing is for (producers) to practice and prepare themselves,” said El-Gazzar. Are they ready, in their facilities, to depopulate? Are they ready to react to the situation if a case of HPAI is suspected? Can they take the proper steps to get samples to a laboratory in a timely manner, to test for the virus?
“Producers need to test themselves,” he said. From personnel, to equipment, to communication plans, preparedness is the biggest factor after biosecurity.
“There has been an awful lot of effort through Extension offices to work with producers to have plans ahead of time,” said Bowman. “Farms should probably do the same.” He added that while plans don’t always work out as intended, the exercise of making those plans and having the important contact numbers handy can make a difference.
“While the federal and state government is willing to help, it’s going to be the industry that is on the front lines, so hopefully the industry is ready,” said El-Gazzar.
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