Officials, reps monitoring avian flu virus

Senior Editor

(March 31, 2015) Health officials in Virginia and Maryland are keeping an eye on what appears to be the spread eastward of the dreaded avian flu virus.
H5N2 Avian Influenza, the strain of AI that has been diagnosed on the West Coast in the past few months, has recently been detected in the Midwest, raising concern that the disease will spread to poultry on the East Coast.
Officials believe the disease is being spread by wild waterfowl.
AI hit the Delmarva Peninsula in 1984, causing widespread poultry deaths. Delaware got a scare in 2004.
Dr. Richard Wilkes, Virginia state veterinarian, said Virginia is not one of the growing number of states with cases of AI right now but added that the virus has moved eastward into the Mississippi flyway.
In light of that, Wilkes advised visitors not to enter poultry operations unless absolutely necessary. For necessary visits such as bringing in feed and other supplies or providing critical services, truckers, veterinarians and even family members should take maximum biosecurity precautions such as disinfecting footwear, vehicle tires, equipment and anything else that enters and exits poultry houses.
On Delmarva, the February and March Delmarva Poultry Industry newsletters, included articles about the need for persons who have contact with chickens to avoid having contact with wild birds.
“Some of the chicken company veterinarians have been participating in conference calls and/or meetings with the state veterinarians from our three states,” said Bill Satterfield, DPI executive director.
“Unlike in prior years, DPI no longer has an Emergency Poultry Disease Task Force,” Satterfield continued. “When the emergency planning industry was created a few years ago, responsibility for emergency planning switched to the state veterinarians. They now take the lead.”
Across the Mid-Atlantic flyway, officials agree that poultry owners from one farm should avoid mingling with residents of other poultry farms as much as possible, the state vet counseled.
In Maryland, Dr. Jonathan Moyle, University of Maryland Extension poultry specialist, said that at all meetings, the practice of strict biosecurity is being stressed.
“We are encouraging our backyard/small flock owners to keep their birds locked up at this time to prevent interaction with wild birds,” Moyle said.
Ditto, Virginia. All poultry owners, both commercial and backyard flock owners, are advised to prevent exposure of poultry to wild waterfowl from fly-overs or fecal contamination of ponds and streams.
“This is the time, if ever there were one, to keep your birds under cover,” said Dr. Wilkes. “Good biosecurity is the best prevention and quick response is the key to keeping the disease from spreading, should it appear here.”  
Any unusual increases in poultry illnesses or deaths should be reported at once.
This particular strain of H5N2 does not affect people. But as a reminder, the proper handling and cooking of poultry and eggs to an internal temperature of 165-degree F kills bacteria and viruses. People should avoid contact with sick/dead poultry or wildlife. If contact occurs, they should wash their hands with soap and water and change clothing before having any contact with healthy domestic poultry and birds.
On the West Coast the first problems were observed with small poultry flocks on the upper portions of the coast, which were soon followed by infections on larger commercial poultry farms on the southern West Coast.  Recently, infections have occurred in the central flyway, a migratory route that encompasses three provinces in Canada and 14 U.S. states, including Minnesota, Missouri and Arkansas, where the disease has been confirmed in turkey flocks.
“Migratory fowl move north and south all over the earth through flyways as they move from nesting and feeding grounds,” said Dr. Scott Beyer, who is a poultry specialist with Kansas State Research and Extension.
“When they comingle in these areas, the avian influenza virus can sometimes be shared between the birds, which then return to their respective flyways bringing new variants of the virus which may have originated from other continents. 
“Although this particular variant of the avian virus (H5N2) is more pathogenic than others, there have been no incidences of the virus spreading to other species or people. As is often the case, this virus has so far not been associated with actual disease symptoms in the migratory fowl so they should be considered potential carriers of the virus that is pathogenic to domesticated poultry.”
The safety of poultry meat and eggs is not an issue, Beyer said. This variant is the H5N2 strain of avian influenza and although it is harmful to birds, it has not been associated with a threat to people or the food supply.
The commercial poultry industry in the U.S. routinely screens for all types of the avian flu in flocks and any positive flocks, even those with variants that are not harmful to birds or people.