As State Veterinarian, with disease surveillance as one of my main responsibilities, I am always on the lookout for several different diseases. I believe the two most potentially devastating diseases are foot and mouth disease and avian influenza. Foot and mouth disease affects cloven-hooved animals such as cattle and swine. Avian influenza affects birds, including poultry. If either of those diseases ever got established in the United States, they could have a devastating effect – not only on animal agriculture but also on our economy as a whole. And while we have many firewalls in place to protect against these viruses and minimize the risk of an outbreak, viruses still do not respond to "NO TRESPASSING" signs, locked gates or other measures of that kind. Even with good biosecurity plans in place, there is still some risk of breaks that allow various viruses and bacteria to cause disease. At that point, our best weapons are rapid recognition and response. That is the case with several recent findings of highly infectious avian influenza in the Northwest region of our country.
Beginning back in December 2014 until the time I am writing this article, there have been 10 confirmed cases of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in the states of Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho. Of the 10 cases, one was commercial chickens, one was commercial turkeys and the rest were mostly mixed backyard poultry and pheasants. It is likely the virus originated in Asia as has spread over the migratory pathways of waterfowl. One of those pathways is the Pacific flyway that includes the states that have recently had to deal with HPAI. The states involved, along with USDA animal health officials, have depopulated the positive flocks and stepped up surveillance. The United States already has the strongest avian influenza surveillance program in the world. As I mentioned earlier, once the disease has arrived, the way to halt the rapid spread of the disease and the potential devastation that would accompany it is rapid recognition and response. Surveillance is the cornerstone of that process.
If you are reading this article, you likely know enough about Alabama agriculture to know that the poultry industry plays a major role in our economy. For that reason, we have a fairly robust surveillance program here in Alabama. We participate in the NPIP program that originally was to help non-commercial or backyard poultry growers discover Salmonellapullorem, a disease that could quickly put those growers out of business. Alabama is one of the leading states in the country when it comes to NPIP participants. We now include avian influenza testing when we test flocks each year. We test for avian influenza twice yearly at all trade days, auctions and other venues where poultry congregate. Every case or group of chickens brought to our diagnostic laboratories is tested for avian influenza. In addition, every flock of chickens, prior to being processed, is tested for avian influenza.
It is often said that if you don’t want to find something, you shouldn’t look for it. Maybe so, but I would say the only thing worse than finding avian influenza with our surveillance program would be to have the disease out there and not find it early enough to contain it. That could certainly adversely affect our economy. Eighty-six thousand people are employed either directly or indirectly by the poultry industry that accounts for $15 billion annually. In addition to all of that, the 20 million chickens we process each week help feed the world. Americans on average consume over 83 pounds of chicken per person annually. Even with the cases of HPAI we are presently dealing with in the Northwestern United States, we have lost some of our export markets.
Our surveillance for the virus has been intensified since somewhere around 2005 when people were predicting the end of civilization as we know it because of some people becoming ill with the influenza virus found in Southeast Asia at the time. It is not a good thing when a virus normally found in one species becomes capable of causing disease in another species. That was the case with the H5N1 subtype of the avian flu virus that was circulating. The World Health Organization has reported that 630 humans became sick and 375 people have died since 2003 as a result of being infected with the H5N1 virus. Fortunately, the virus has never been capable of being transmitted from person to person. The people who became ill and died from the avian influenza lived or worked in close proximity to chickens. In fact, many of them were from areas where people often kept their chickens in the house or hut with them. Also, if a chicken became sick or died, the owners often would try to salvage the meat by using the dead or dying bird for food. Even though cooking to a temperature of 165 degrees should kill any bacteria, virus or parasite, it is never recommended to consume anything that is obviously sick.
If you or even someone you know raises poultry – chickens, ducks, turkeys, pheasants or other birds, it is important to make every effort to keep those animals separate from wild birds, especially waterfowl. It is also important to report sick birds to state or federal animal health officials. This is also true when it comes to unexplained deaths. While Alabama is not near the Pacific flyway, we need to keep our guard up more than ever because the virus is in the continental United States. With travel as it is today, good biosecurity is an absolute necessity.
I suppose the global scare of a bird flu pandemic that could be the apocalypse caused us to become more vigilant toward the virus. We have an Avian Influenza Response Plan in place here in Alabama that will be activated the moment we suspect the disease is present in our state. Commercial poultry companies have their own response plans. We also have a poultry health committee who works to bring all components of the poultry industry to be on the same page when combatting diseases such as avian influenza.
The best part of my job is knowing that I get to play some role in helping those who produce our food to do it with as few obstacles as possible. We will continue to be on the lookout for HPAI, as well as other diseases that could cause serious problems for our animal agriculture community. If you have questions or suspect you have an unusual animal disease, please contact my office at 334-240-7253.
Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama. You can contact him at 334-240-7253