September 2015
From the State Vet's Office

Avian Influenza Knocking at the Door

Strict biosecurity is essential.

I suppose "knocking at the door" is not really a term that applies to viruses. Actually, there is no door at the state line to keep viruses out. If it was that simple, when the avian influenza virus knocked, we would just act like we weren’t home and not answer. Eventually, the virus would just decide to not come into Alabama. Unfortunately, it is pretty much impossible to stop migratory waterfowl that may be carrying the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus from flying over our state. So we are going to ramp up our biosecurity efforts.

If you watched much news this summer, you most likely heard discussion about the "bird flu" and that federal and state animal health officials expect it to return to the United States this fall when waterfowl migration gets back into gear. The first case of the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus was confirmed in the state of Washington back in December 2014. The last confirmed case was June 17, 2015, in Iowa, a state hit particularly hard during that outbreak. According to USDA reports, nearly 32 million of the 48 million birds affected nationally were in Iowa. It has certainly affected the table-egg industry. I can only imagine how devastating it would be if the virus gets any kind of foothold here in Alabama. To be honest, I sometimes lie awake at night thinking about it.

I know I have written about avian influenza or "bird flu" quite a bit recently, mostly to expand on the 30-second to one-minute sound bites you get on the news and also to put Alabama’s perspective on what is going on nationally. But I want to use most of my time in this column discussing biosecurity, our best weapon since we can’t stop migrating waterfowl from flying over our state. Additionally, the principles of biosecurity can be used not only to help prevent the introduction and spread of bird flu but also applied to livestock operation, or even keeping the family dog from getting mange from some stray dog passing through the community. Today, we are mostly going to focus on reducing the risk of avian influenza in poultry using strict biosecurity.

First, make sure you do not bring the virus to your poultry house, chicken pen or other enclosure where poultry are kept. I suggest you always have a disinfectant foot bath at the entrance of these enclosures. It is also a good idea to have a specific pair of shoes you wear when entering the areas occupied by poultry. It is not uncommon for people to track viruses from one place to another on their shoes. I can remember when I was in private practice, we would occasionally see some little Yorkshire Terrier the owners swore never went outside, but would have parvo. The only way the dog could have gotten the virus was for the people in the house to have tracked it in. Migratory waterfowl can carry the virus and never get sick. They can excrete huge numbers of virus particles in their feces. I realize you may never see a duck on your property, but birds flying over could leave a fecal sample they drop from the sky if the urge hits at the right time. For sure, do not go to another poultry farm and stroll in with your poultry like you were going to Walmart. It could introduce diseases, not just bird flu.

The second step is to make sure your poultry do not drink untreated surface water from ponds, lakes, streams, etc. Obviously, this is for backyard poultry producers. If you are a commercial producer and this is your source of water for your poultry houses, you have concerns other than avian influenza. Sharing water sources that could be potentially contaminated with germs from infected animals is just not a good practice. If you saw someone sneezing, coughing and blowing snot out of their nose, and set a glass down, a glass they had been drinking from, you wouldn’t likely pick it up and start drinking from it. Well, it’s the same principle.

Next, clean up outside feed spills. This could not only attract migratory waterfowl, but it just increases all kind of vermin and undesirables. Feed spills outside poultry houses can attract rodents, possums, raccoons and flies. They can all carry bacteria that may be passed on to the poultry inside the houses. It is a formidable job to keep poultry healthy without attracting problems.

Another step is to do everything possible, within the law, to keep waterfowl from occupying a pond on your farm or one on a nearby neighbor’s. I realize this could be very difficult, especially for those who have ducks that are normal residents of the farm. I don’t want ducks to be cast in a bad light, but it is almost certain, if we get avian influenza into our state, it will be from migratory waterfowl. The USDA epidemiologists have determined the migratory waterfowl carriers have come here from Europe, where a couple of strains of the virus have been circulating for a while.

Again, this is another one intended for noncommercial poultry. If possible, keep your poultry in a bird-proof enclosure. For purposes of biosecurity, free-roaming birds are (pardon the pun) sitting ducks. Notice I said free-roaming, not free-range. I am aware of several free-range operations with birds in enclosures they can roll across their pastures. That protects the chickens from predators as well as concentrating the manure to fertilize the land. But even free-range birds in enclosures are more vulnerable to the virus if migratory waterfowl are on the property.

If you are a noncommercial producer, make sure, if you purchase chicks, they are from reputable hatcheries that participate in some type of program monitoring for avian influenza. Government animal health officials will be doing everything possible to make sure chicks or other poultry are shipped from an area where avian influenza has not been diagnosed. Still, it is a good idea to never buy from an unknown source. This includes buying from someone in the Walmart parking lot.

And finally, if you happen to be a missionary or travel abroad, do not come in contact with poultry for at least a week after you return home. Several years ago, I spoke with the lab director at the Plum Island Foreign Animal Disease Facility. He believes viruses that could be devastating to our poultry and livestock industry are being unintentionally brought into our country, but are not making it out to the farm because a large percentage of the people travelling are urbanites and not farmers.

From my perspective, it is up to the poultry producers to put strict biosecurity measures in place and make sure to follow those measures. Then, if we do get a confirmation of a positive case of bird flu, it is no less than critical that every precaution be taken to prevent the spread of the disease. It is difficult to implement a strict biosecurity program, but it is even more difficult to teach the migrating waterfowl to not fly over Alabama.

Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama. You can contact him at 334-240-7253.