Avian flu risk rises with onset of fall migration

Avian flu risk rises with onset of fall migration

Warm weather has delayed flight of birds south, high risk for avian flu remains through end of year

It's been a quiet summer of recovery from the deadly Highly Pathogenic Avian Flu epidemic that caused the death of millions of turkeys and chickens in the spring of 2015. But poultry operators should not let down their guard.

In fact, the next two months will bring a heightened danger for a recurrence of the virus and poultry owners should be particularly vigilant as the fall migration of birds from their summer nesting grounds in Canada to overwintering areas in the south gets under way.

RISK RISING: As fall migration begins, the risk for a recurrance of last spring's deadly outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza increass.

"So far, temperatures have been quite warm and the forecast is for them to stay warm a while longer, so we haven't seen the big migration start yet," said Kansas Livestock Commissioner Bill Brown. "In Kansas we still have the ban on co-mingling in place until the end of the year."

That ban resulted in the cancellation of poultry shows at county fairs and the Kansas State Fair and has prevented many of the fall shows and swap meetings that poultry hobbyists love.

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"It is really hard to advise people with backyard or hobby flocks on what to do," Brown said. "One of our initial cases of avian flu last spring was a backyard flock and it was self-reported."

Brown said the danger to small flocks that tend to be kept close to home and have little chance for contract with wild birds -- or even other domestic birds -- is not as high as it is to large flocks of birds and commercial operations. In fact, out of 230 facilities that experienced losses to HPAI last spring, only 20 were backyard flocks.

"If you have expensive birds, it would be worthwhile to take measures to prevent them from having access to ponds or open bodies of water where wild birds congregate," he said.

For commercial growers who saw losses in the hundreds of thousands last spring as the avian flu virus hit hard in Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, the fall migration is a tense time.

Last year, the infection was mostly limited to the Pacific and Mississippi Flyways. But birds from all over have comingled during the summer months and the virus could show up in any one of the nation's four flyways -- the Atlantic, the Mississippi, the Central or the Pacific.

For the poultry industry, an Atlantic flyway outbreak could be particularly devastating because it would hit the large growing operations in Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina.

"The East Coast producers are very concerned," Brown said. "Full biosecurity measures are in place and doing a lot of preparedness exercises."

USDA has a self-assessment checklist that producers can access to help determine their level of risk. That website also offers links to bio-security planning and other information to help producers be able to quickly detect and respond to an outbreak.

Brown said quick action is essential when a case of avian flu is detected.

"One of the issues we have in the large commercial flocks is that so much virus is being produced that we couldn't stay ahead of it. We couldn't put down birds fast enough to prevent it spreading.

The goal in an outbreak is to depopulate the flock within 24 hours, he said, to stop the production and spread of the infection.

Brown said influenza viruses are extremely quick to mutate and that avian influenza can mutate to a form that can infect humans, which makes vigilance for it even more important.

Any migratory season elevates the risk that pathogens can spread from wild birds to domestic flocks, he said. But this fall's migration is especially high risk because of the spring infection.

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