My phone conveyed a panicked message from my friend Carrie last Tuesday morning. “I keep getting info from our health department about avian influenza. I am freaking out! Can I even keep my hens?”
I had no idea what Carrie was talking about. I am usually on top of things when it comes to poultry-industry announcements. But it was very early in the morning and I hadn’t had a chance to look at any notifications or emails since before the weekend.
I quickly fired off a text to one of my university contacts, asking if he’d heard about anything poultry-related going on in Nebraska. I’d just begun writing a reassuring response to Carrie when a reply text arrived: CHECK APHIS!
APHIS—the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service—is run by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). It is one of the most reliable sources in the country for backyard-flock and livestock biosecurity. Sure enough, the top news story item filled me in immediately: USDA Confirms Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza [HPAI] in a Non-Commercial Backyard Flock (Non-Poultry) in Nebraska.
Fortunately for Carrie—and for her beloved hens—the infected flock was located in Merrick County, more than an hour east of her location. The State of Nebraska sent out mass notifications across the entire state, however, informing the public about the HPAI outbreak.
This was indeed the correct and required action for the state to take. But the notice unfortunately seems to have badly frightened backyard chicken owners.
Carrie, normally a very level-headed individual, was absolutely unnerved that her hens might contract or carry the illness despite her having raised them in a contained environment from the moment they hatched. I in turn expressed my concern that other poultry owners might have panicked and euthanized their birds instead of seeking more information.
HPAI on the Move
Sadly, Nebraska is not the only state whose flocks have been affected by HPAI. Through the APHIS National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, IA, the USDA to date has confirmed the presence of HPAI in both backyard and commercial chicken flocks in Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri and Wisconsin and in commercial turkey flocks in Indiana, Iowa, Missouri and South Dakota.
In addition, five states—Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Missouri, and New Hampshire—had confirmed cases in non-poultry backyard flocks, just like Nebraska.
What Does This Mean for the Infected Flocks?
Unfortunately, HPAI decimates flocks. According to Dr. R.M. Fulton, DVM, PhD, and Diplomate of the American College of Poultry Veterinarians, this virus has up to 100-percent morbidity (rate of contagion) and up to 100-percent mortality.
HPAI rips through a flock so swiftly that the key clinical sign for the disease is dead birds. Other signs include:
- blistered, purple-blue combs
- swollen faces
- blood in the trachea and esophagus
- a hemorrhaged small intestine and/or heart
The only means of eradicating the disease once confirmed in a flock is to euthanize the flock.
The USDA has teamed with animal health officials in each affected state to quarantine the affected premises and euthanize the flocks in an effort to prevent the spread of HPAI. In addition, the USDA and state officials are conducting surveillance and testing of backyard and commercial flocks and migratory-bird populations around the affected areas.
What Does This Mean for My Chickens?
For the vast majority of backyard flock owners, a state-issued notification regarding HPAI serves as a reminder to practice biosecurity. The APHIS web site has a page devoted to backyard biosecurity for flock owners as well as a downloadable pamphlet.
Three of their main tips include:
- Keep your backyard flock in a fully enclosed run that prevents contact with migratory birds, especially such commonly encountered birds as Canada geese and house sparrows. According to APHIS, wild birds can be infected with HPAI and show no signs of illness, potentially passing the virus to backyard poultry flocks. APHIS is anticipating an increase in confirmed HPAI cases as more wild birds return from their winter away.
- Keep a designated pair of work boots in a tightly sealed tub near the entrance to your chicken run. Wear these only in the run and coop. This way, you minimize the potential of tracking disease-infected wild-bird droppings into your chickens’ living area.
- Tires—from a car, truck or even a wheelbarrow—can pick up and transmit germs from one area to another, as can lawn and garden equipment and tools. Keep these away from your poultry habitat and disinfect them after use, especially if you have lent them out to your neighbors or friends.
What Does This Mean for Me?
Other than perhaps a little anxiety, most likely not much. The USDA carefully disposes of the bodies of all depopulated birds, typically by incineration. So there is no worry that their infected meat or eggs will enter the human food system.
As for the virus jumping from bird to human, there is no cause for concern. The USDA clearly notes that not one human case of HPAI has ever been detected in the U.S. Furthermore, according to Dr. Fulton, avian influenza may simply cause conjunctivitis (pink eye) in humans.
Should your flock be one of the ones with confirmed HPAI, the loss of your birds is regrettable but inevitable. One comfort is that APHIS features an indemnity and compensation program to flock owners whose animals were euthanized to prevent the spread of HPAI.
What Exactly is HPAI?
Highly pathogenic avian influenza is a Type-A Orthomyxovirus, an extremely contagious respiratory disease similar to the human flu. There are lesser types or avian influenza nonpathogenic AI and low-pathogenic AI—but highly pathogenic is the deadliest, frequently killing birds without any noticeable symptoms.
The disease affects all commercial poultry, although waterfowl such as ducks and geese seem to resist the disease and instead become carriers of the virus. The U.S. has an extremely advanced AI surveillance program, working with both state officials as well as international organizations such as the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) to limit animal products in defined areas that pose a risk of contagion.
I did my best to calm Carrie down and reassure her that she had no need for concern regarding HPAI and her beloved layers. I am still concerned about those chickens in danger of being unnecessarily euthanized by their owners. This article, I hope, will help educate and prevent the unnecessary slaughter of backyard flocks.
Naturally, I am concerned about the HPAI outbreak and how swiftly it is spreading across the U.S. Keep up to date with the map and search feature on this interactive APHIS page. You can also find a list of APHIS-confirmed HPAI cases here.
And, should you receive notification of an HPAI outbreak in your state, know that you have resources available to you online before you take any action with your flock.