(FARM AND DAIRY) – State departments of agriculture in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are urging poultry owners to step up biosecurity after the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza in several states in January and February.
The recent cases are in states including Indiana, Michigan, Virginia, Kentucky and New York, in wild birds, commercial flocks and backyard flocks. The virus doesn’t appear to be spreading from farm to farm, and is likely coming from wild birds, officials said. While no cases have been found in Ohio, West Virginia or Pennsylvania so far, all three states are at risk.
“We are just as susceptible to wild birds here as any other state along those migratory flyways,” Dennis Summers, Ohio’s state veterinarian, told Farm and Dairy. “We’re a really big poultry state, so we’re really monitoring and being extra vigilant.”
HPAI is a type of bird flu that is very contagious among poultry and often fatal to chickens. The U.S. has had outbreaks of it in the past, including a major one in 2015 that cost the industry a total of about $2 billion and saw many states shut down poultry shows at fairs and other events that year.
While bird flu can infect humans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Feb. 14 human infections are rare and no human cases of these viruses have been detected in the U.S. The CDC said the general public health risk remains low.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, warning signs of avian influenza include sudden increase in bird deaths without any clinical signs, lack of energy and appetite, decrease in egg production, soft- or thin-shelled or misshapen eggs, swelling of the head, eyelids, comb, wattles and hocks, purple discoloration of the wattles, comb and legs, gasping for air, coughing, sneezing or nasal discharge, stumbling or falling down and diarrhea.
Bird owners in Ohio who suspect highly pathogenic avian influenza in their flock should call the department of agriculture’s animal health division at 614-728-6220. In Pennsylvania, contact the Pennsylvania Bureau of Animal Health and Diagnostics at 717-772-2852 or firstname.lastname@example.org. In West Virginia, contact the animal health division at 304-558-2214.
For more information about biosecurity and avian influenza, visit aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/animal-disease-information/avian/defend-the-flock-program.
Cases so far have been popping up in different areas, with no clear farm-to-farm spread between them. That means systems put in place to test sick birds, and to depopulate flocks that test positive, are working, Summers said.
“I remain hopefully optimistic in Pennsylvania,” said Kevin Brightbill, Pennsylvania’s state veterinarian. “We’re always hoping for the best, but planning for the worst.”
It also means the disease is likely spreading when wild birds land on or fly over property with domestic poultry on it. Brightbill said one of the biggest risks on farms is fecal material from wild waterfowl. The virus can spread through both direct contact and indirect contact — through surfaces infected birds have touched, infected feces and the air.
“That’s our concern,” said Crescent Gallagher, communications director for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. “That potentially this disease just drops out of the sky.”
An outbreak of HPAI could have serious consequences. Ohio is the No. 2 table egg-producing state. In West Virginia, poultry is the top agricultural commodity. Pennsylvania has a $7.1 billion poultry industry and ranks eighth in the nation for poultry and egg sales. And even outside of commercial operations, many people have backyard flocks or 4-H poultry projects.
“Anybody in Ohio could have backyard operations,” Summers said. “They’re just as susceptible.”
While larger poultry and egg farmers are typically connected with industry groups and hear a lot of information about avian influenza, some with backyard chickens or 4-H projects might not be as in the know, Summers said.
State agriculture departments are working with extension and poultry industry groups to encourage biosecurity and make sure poultry owners know what to watch for. Jim Chakeres, executive vice president for the Ohio Poultry Association, said biosecurity is an important first line of defense for small and large poultry flocks alike.
“It’s a very concerning time for poultry farmers,” he added. “But, yet, we’re going to continue to do what we do, and do our best.”
Biosecurity can include things as simple as washing hands, using disposable boot covers, limiting and keeping track of visitors and documenting where feed comes from. It’s important for poultry farms at any time, but now that there are HPAI cases in the U.S., it’s time for poultry owners to start enhancing biosecurity, Chakeres said.
Bird owners should also keep their flocks away from wild birds. State animal health officials are encouraging poultry owners to keep their birds indoors, if possible.
“If you can keep birds in the barn right now, that’s the right thing to do,” Chakeres said.
It’s also important for bird owners to closely monitor their animals’ health. Anyone who sees signs of avian influenza in their poultry should contact their department of agriculture to report possible sick birds. That allows the department to test and quarantine, and depopulate flocks that test positive.
For several months now, state and national officials have been watching for HPAI as it circulated in Europe and Canada. The Ohio Department of Agriculture has increased its testing capacity for avian influenza, both so it can do more testing in the state, and so it can help adjacent states if necessary, Summers said. Pennsylvania has also been preparing its diagnostic lab in case it needs to do more testing.
In 2015, poultry were not allowed at fairs in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and many other states, due to an outbreak at the time.
Gallagher said shutting down events is on West Virginia’s radar if there are more cases in the U.S., but right now, things haven’t gotten that far yet. For now, Ohio is not considering shutting down shows or limiting poultry movement, Summers said.
“We’re letting the system do its job … there’s no justification yet to engage in conversations about further restrictions within Ohio for poultry movement,” he said. Currently, since cases found so far in other states are not linked, it looks like the system is working. “If that system fails to work … then you start talking about further restrictions.”
If the disease becomes more prevalent, especially in states bordering Ohio or in Ohio, the department might consider those types of restrictions.
Brightbill said it’s still too early to know what things will look like in the summer, and Pennsylvania would think seriously about how to handle things like poultry shows if the virus is found in the state. Since the virus is likely spreading through migratory birds, he anticipates the risk continuing through at least the end of April, and likely into the summer.