At the risk of being asked to change the title of this column to "Dr. Frazier’s Monthly Bird Flu Update," I am going to give you another avian influenza or bird flu update. It was back in 2005 when highly pathogenic avian influenza was hitting various areas in Asia and one of the top nightly news stories was how there was a good possibility somewhere between 5 million and 150 million people would die from that particular virus because it had been proven to infect humans with over half the known cases resulting in death. It was predicted by many that this virus would mutate so it could pass from human to human, not just chickens to humans. And because it had proven fatal and because a vaccine had not been developed to protect humans yet, it made sense to many recognized experts that it would be the apocalypse.
You may not have noticed that bird flu as a news headline quietly went away and really didn’t resurface until last year when highly pathogenic avian influenza hit the United States resulting in the loss or depopulation of around 48 million commercial turkeys and table egg layer chickens. The outbreak last year largely resulted in a significant rise in egg prices. This year, on January 15, right at the end of a grow-out, a commercial turkey farm in DuBois County, Ind., was confirmed to have the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus identified as H7N8.
The strain H7N8 was a bit of a surprise because it was a different strain than those responsible for the loss of the 48 million birds in 2015. In fact, as a result of testing and surveillance in the area of the positive turkey farm, nine other farms were found to have the H7N8 virus. The good thing, I suppose, is that the other nine farms that were positive had the low pathogenic form of the virus. There is a huge difference between low and highly pathogenic avian influenza virus. The positive birds for the low pathogenic form of the virus were not even sick. The importance of finding these positive farms and depopulating them is that the virus sometimes mutates and goes from being a low to a highly pathogenic virus. That means going from having a virus and not being sick to having a virus that can potentially kill 90-100 percent of the flock.
Surveillance began immediately after the virus was confirmed on the commercial turkey farm. The response began with testing of all poultry in a 10 kilometer (6.2 mile) radius of the initial or index farm. After that area test was completed, the surveillance area was expanded by another 10 kilometers.
As I write this column, there have been no new positive cases since January 17. It is very impressive and also very essential that the surveillance be conducted quickly, as it was in this case. That is not to say other cases may flare up as time goes on. It is important because the ability to find positive farms and depopulate exposed birds dramatically lessens the chance of spread of the virus, at least from poultry farms.
The reservoir for the virus, as always, is wild water fowl. The wild birds serve as source of avian influenza virus. While we cannot necessarily control where these birds travel or where they distribute their feces, we can practice strict biosecurity to minimize any spread of virus from wild water fowl to commercial or even backyard poultry. It requires constant vigilance as well as rapid recognition and response if backyard or commercial poultry become sick.
Referring back to the Indiana response, it required more than just the State of Indiana and federal agriculture workers in that state. There were USDA and veterinary services employees from around the country sent to the area to assist in the surveillance and depopulation of the exposed birds. In fact, at least one USDA veterinarian from Alabama was involved. It is very intense work and requires a high degree of coordination.
Here in Alabama, we would do much the same as Indiana. It would not take long to exhaust the resources and personnel we have in Alabama. If we ever have a positive highly pathogenic avian influenza confirmation, we would reach out to our colleagues from other states as well as federal veterinary services personnel from other states. I have spoken with some of the state veterinarians who went through the fire in their states during the 2014-2015 outbreaks. Even in small, less-concentrated poultry states such as South Dakota, it did not take long to overwhelm the resources they had to deal with responding to the disease in their state.
There are a few other issues worth noting that are just a bonus for being a reader of my column in the Cooperative Farming News. First, it is important to know that there has been no spread of the H7N8 virus from birds to humans. While having the highly pathogenic virus in birds is certainly bad enough, when avian influenza viruses have been known to spread to humans, there definitely is another layer of concern we have to deal with. As I was doing a little research for this column, I found there is a strain of the avian influenza virus, the H7N9 strain, that has mostly been in China and surrounding countries and has caused over 600 people to become ill and over 200 of those have died.
Another point worth making is that, while properly handling and cooking poultry makes it safe for human consumption, the pre-harvest testing done by commercial poultry companies makes it virtually impossible for infected poultry to make it into the food chain. I can remember a survey taken several years ago that stated that a large number of people would not eat poultry products if we had "bird flu" in the United States. I can tell you that our poultry and poultry products offered for human consumption pose no threat because of avian influenza.
Finally, I doubt it needs to even be addressed, but poultry is huge business in Alabama. As the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association homepage states, "Poultry in Alabama generates $15 billion in revenue each year. It accounts for an astounding 65.6 percent of annual farming revenues and employs more than 86,000 workers on farms, processing plants and allied industries."
I can assure you, if you live in Alabama, the poultry industry affects you either directly or indirectly. We are doing all we can to keep the industry healthy. Please report any unusually high mortality rates of poultry or unusually sick poultry to my office.
Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama. You can contact him at 334-240-7253.