BERLIN – The avian flu responsible for rising egg prices and the increased cost of turkey in some parts of the country could hit Delmarva this fall.
Mike Radebaugh, Maryland’s state veterinarian, says officials are concerned wild birds will bring the disease to the area during the fall migration. Though this strain of the virus is not associated with human illness, it could have a huge impact on the area’s chicken population.
“The poultry industry is very important in our state,” he said. “The ripple effect to the economy would be devastating.”
That’s why officials have been preparing for the possibility of this strain of the virus arriving in Maryland for months. Representatives from the Maryland Department of Agriculture have warned poultry owners, canceled poultry fairs for the rest of the year and started working with federal agencies on containment plans.
“We hope we don’t get it but we have to be prepared if we do,” Radebaugh said.
The flu, which arrived on the West Coast at the end of 2014, has already resulted in the deaths of nearly 50 million birds. Radebaugh says it’s spread by wild waterfowl, which carry the disease but don’t show symptoms. The flu spread to the Midwest with this spring’s wild bird migration and state officials say they’re afraid it will spread to the East Coast with the fall migration.
“It’s a highly virulent and destructive virus,” Radebaugh said. “It does not take a lot of virus to spread to poultry.”
Birds that contract avian flu will begin coughing and sneezing. They’ll stand with ruffled feathers while the disease takes its toll on their bodies.
“It causes internal damage to their vital organs,” Radebaugh said. “They die very quickly. Within three to five days most of the birds in a flock are dead. It’s devastating to domestic poultry.”
Poultry owners are asked to report any sick birds to the Maryland Department of Agriculture so they can be tested. Radebaugh and his associates have also increased the amount of testing done at poultry markets. All birds that go to slaughter are tested.
If a flock tests positive for avian flu, Radebaugh says the birds will be depopulated — euthanized — in a humane fashion and the biocontainment process will begin. The birds would be disposed of on the property, probably by composting, and the chicken houses would be cleaned and disinfected. According to Radebaugh, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has set up an indemnity program to help farmers whose flocks are affected.
Nevertheless, an outbreak of avian flu on Delmarva — where there are 150 million birds on any given day — would be devastating. Radebaugh says the best way chicken farmers can protect themselves is with enhanced biosecurity. They shouldn’t share equipment, he said, nor should they visit farms or auctions where they might pick up the disease. They should have designated clothing for each chicken house.
“Biosecurity is the key,” he said.
Officials from Perdue agree. Julie DeYoung, a spokesperson for the company, says that while Perdue growers always maintain strict disease prevention procedures, they are taking special care as the possibility of an avian flu outbreak nears.
“We are communicating with growers to remind them of the importance of maintaining good biosecurity practices, such as limiting visitors and wearing farm-specific clothing,” DeYoung said. “In addition, we are working with growers to prevent exposure to waterfowl or wild birds by ensuring their poultry houses are bird proof and asking those with a higher risk of exposure to waterfowl, such as those with ponds or near bodies of water, to take extra precautions to protect their flocks. We are prepared to increase biosecurity – including limiting on-farm visits and travel between farms and growing regions — to protect our flocks.”
She says Perdue flocks, which are always tested before they leave the farm, would, as Radebaugh said, be depopulated if they tested positive for flu and growers would work with state officials to contain the virus.
In Worcester County, officials have been preparing for some time. Because the county experienced an outbreak of avian flu in 2004, the Delmarva Avian Influenza Joint Task Force was created. The group, according to Worcester County Health Officer Debbie Goeller, has met on a regular basis since 2005. The task force is made up of representatives from the poultry industry, state government and local health departments.
“We’ve been working all along to make sure we maintain a certain level of preparedness,” she said. “Our economy is so reliant on the poultry industry it makes sense for us to be prepared.”
She says that though this strain of avian flu is not associated with illness in humans, officials should still be prepared.
“These strains can change and modify quickly,” she said. “If we were to have an outbreak we’d certainly hope for no human illness be we are prepared should there be.”
The task force has developed a list of recommendations and guidelines to ensure workers remain protected in case avian flu does become a threat to human health.