By Barbara Olejnik
Poultry Times Staff
GAINESVILLE, Ga. — The massive outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) that has devastated the U.S. turkey and egg industry appears to have slowed its onslaught, but federal and state officials are preparing for possible further outbreaks in coming months.
According to the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, the last recorded incident (as of July 9) of U.S. avian influenza occurred on June 17. 2015.
Up to that time, APHIS recorded 223 detections affecting 48 million birds in at least 21 states. The hardest hit were turkey flocks in Minnesota and egg layers in Iowa — both states being the top producers of those birds.
USDA has depopulated 7.5 million turkeys and 42 million chickens and young hens, representing about 3 percent of the U.S. annual turkey production and approximately 10 percent of the egg-laying chicken population.
The outbreaks began in December 2014 along the Pacific flyway and moved eastward to the Central and Mississippi flyways — the routes used by migratory birds.
The virus has not been seen along the Atlantic flyway, but the poultry industry sees a risk of infection when migratory birds begin following this route in the fall. The Atlantic flyway area includes a large portion of the broiler meat industry.
“The early detection of avian influenza remains key to controlling its spread and minimizing its effects,” Dr. John Clifford, USDA chief veterinary officer and APHIS deputy administrator, has stated.
Testifying before a Senate Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry Committee on July 7, Clifford noted that USDA has already committed more than $500 million to combating the HPAI outbreak — an amount more than half of APHIS’ yearly discretionary budget. The agency can and will request additional funds if needed, he said.
The federal government has already taken steps to prepare for any future outbreak of the virus.
It has announced plans to monitor wild birds for avian influenza this fall to provide an early warning of any new AI outbreak.
As part of the USDA plans, federal and state biologists will collect around 41,000 samples from apparently healthy wild birds from targeted areas from coast to coast through March 31. The samples will be taken mostly from ducks shot by hunters, but also from live-caught birds, fecal samples collected from waterfowl habitats and a wide variety of wild birds that are found dead.
Migratory birds are natural carriers of avian influenza viruses and don’t normally get sick from them. But HPAI strains are deadly to domestic poultry.
Clifford also said USDA would like to have one person assigned to each flock so that farms have a single point of contact. Currently a USDA representative deals with an infected farm for a period of about three to four weeks as part of a rotation.
Having one person to answer farmers’ questions would make their lives must simpler and easier, Clifford noted.
In response to questions about a possible vaccine against avian influenza, Clifford said USDA is actually developing a vaccine bank.
“We intend to go out for a request for proposals soon, to ask companies to bid on that. We have several companies that are in the process of developing vaccines.
“And we believe that we will have a vaccine bank available sometime this fall.”
However, Clifford said, it’s “a tool in the toolbox” that the government needs to decide if it is the right thing to utilize in a particular situation.
“So we’re working on those protocols and we’ll be reaching out this summer to our trading partners to encourage our trading partners under these conditions to not shut off trade,” he said, adding that right now, if that tool was used, U.S. trading partners “will shut us off and we will lose potentially up to $3 billion or $4 billion additionally in trade.”
While the federal government is exploring ways to combat an avian influenza outbreak, at least 13 states have already canceled state and local poultry shows to minimize the risk of the disease spreading if it is found in those states.
Among the latest to issue bans on poultry shows are Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Maryland and South Carolina.
Pennsylvania is suspending all avian competitions at state-approved agricultural fairs in 2015 as well as the 2016 Pennsylvania Farm Show as “proactive precautionary measures” to protect the industry and animal health.
In North Carolina all bird and poultry shows in the fall have been canceled, including the poultry show scheduled for the 2015 Cleveland County Fair.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture has banned the entry of waterfowl in fairs and shows in the state, stepped up testing requirements for poultry and met with emergency management officials to prepare in case of an outbreak.
The South Carolina State Fair has canceled most of its fowl and bird competitions for the 2015 fair as a “precautionary step against the avian influenza virus.” The exhibit will still feature doves and pigeons, which are not affected by the virus.
Tennessee is also taking precautions against a possible outbreak of avian influenza. A State Veterinarian’s Order has been issued requiring that effective Aug. 1, all out of state birds transported to Tennessee must have proof of a negative AI test within 21 days of movement of Natural Poultry Improvement Plan AI Clean certification.
National poultry organizations are also involved in preparing for potential future exposure of the industry to an avian influenza outbreak.
The National Chicken Council, National Turkey Federation, United Egg Producers, USA Poultry & Egg Export Council and the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, joined by USDA, will present a conference on “Avian Influenza Outbreak . Lessons Learned” on July 28-29 at the Des Moines Marriott Downtown in Des Moines, Iowa.
The conference is free to qualified poultry industry personnel, and will be closed to the media in order to facilitate open and frank discussions, the industry groups stated.
Registration is available at www.uspoultry.org/uspforms/AIOutbreakConf/index.cfm.