June 2017
From the State Vet's Office

All Hands on Deck

Putting Out the Avian Influenza Fire

Dr. Charlie Hatcher is the Tennessee State Veterinarian and a good friend. I almost always enjoy hearing from Hatcher. That was not the case Friday, March 3. I never do anything like this, but on my bucket list was to attend a Buck Brannaman Colt Starting and Horsemanship Clinic. There I was on annual leave in Ft. Worth, Texas, about to enjoy three days away from work, getting educated on how to train a green colt to compete in reining competition in just three short days – well, maybe not compete in a reining class but at least to ride like an old hand. Anyway, the clinic had not been going for long when my phone rang and I saw Hatcher’s name. I didn’t answer right away. I figured I was on leave and I would call him back. After a little bit, I got up and went out of the arena and returned my Tennessee colleague’s call.

"Hey, Buddy, we’ve got it in Tennessee?" … "Got What?" … "High Path AI!" … "You’re Kidding!?" … "Nope. Not kidding. A commercial breeder farm in the Shelbyville area had increased mortality – losing a few hundred a day."

Well, that call pretty much shot the rest of my horse training clinic weekend. It was mostly conference calls with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, other state veterinarians and poultry industry folks. You know, you can’t just pop in and out of a colt-starting clinic for a little bit here and there and then go home and think you are going to train a colt. Oh well, highly pathogenic avian influenza does take priority over a Buck Brannaman Horse Clinic. And I figured south Tennessee was a little too close to the Alabama state line for me to be on leave.

You never know what it is going to be like when HPAI comes calling. There was an outbreak back in 2014-2015 that mostly affected the Mid-West and the closest it came to us was somewhere in Arkansas. During that outbreak, over 50 million birds either died from the infection or had to be destroyed to contain the outbreak. In 2016, a HPAI outbreak in Indiana affected only one turkey farm with about 43,000 birds. The severity and how widespread the outbreak is depends on several factors such as how infectious the virus is, how pathogenic it is and the early response to contain the spread of the virus.

Avian influenza has been on our radar screen since before I became state veterinarian. We have a response plan that we have continued to fine-tune. We have exercised our plan, even with our neighboring states. We have continually enhanced our labs to be prepared to handle the heavy work load accompanying an avian influenza outbreak. We were as ready as we could be and the virus was just across the state line in Tennessee.

The only problem was that, when there is an avian influenza case detected, we set up surveillance zones where we test all poultry in a 6.2-mile radius of the positive flock. The surveillance zone dipped down into Alabama, so we had to begin locating all poultry, including backyard chickens, turkeys and guineas. As we began testing, we found a flock positive for low pathogenic avian influenza. While LPAI is not as devastating as HPAI, it is not good. HPAI is sort of like humans having Ebola virus. It is a really bad disease. LPAI is more like having hemorrhoids. It is still not a good thing to have but not nearly as bad as Ebola. The other thing about LPAI is that all it has to do is mutate or change just a little bit and it can become HPAI.

This next bit of information will not be that beneficial unless you are on a gameshow that gets fairly technical. But I think it helps you understand a little more of what we are doing. Influenza viruses have a first name and a last name. Their first name is H with a number following and the last name is N with a number following. The only H’s that can become highly pathogenic are H5 and H7. That means, when we began testing in the surveillance zones and find any H5s or H7s, we definitely have issues that must be dealt with.

As the testing began, a commercial flock in Lauderdale County tested positive for H7N9, the same first and last name as the high path virus near Shelbyville, Tennessee. We found a guinea at a trade day over in Jackson County positive for LPAI. That resulted in my calling for a stop movement order on all noncommercial birds until we got a handle on what we had across North Alabama. A little later, another commercial flock in Pickens County tested positive on routine testing. Later, a commercial flock in Cullman County tested positive for the low-path H7N9. With all of these positive cases, we had to establish the 6.2-mile (10K) radius surveillance zone and test all the commercial and non-commercial flocks in the zone.

As the title of the article says, it was time for all hands on deck. During the time beginning in early March through about April 21, we tested 327 premises. That required our labs to treat every test in the surveillance zones as Priority 1. Our Auburn lab worked all weekend the first weekend after we began testing. The testing involved 34 State Department of Agriculture and Industries workers – 25 lab workers, four field workers and five office workers. It also included 13 USDA employees. Hundreds of hours were worked and about 250,000 chickens were destroyed to stop the spread of the virus and to make sure it wouldn’t become highly pathogenic. And I am pretty sure I set some kind of record for being on the phone with USDA, other state veterinarians, companies and individual producers.

And then, our tests were all negative and, in my opinion, the crisis was avoided. When you look at the 2014-2015 outbreak and see that over 50 million birds were affected and look at our 250 thousand, it seems apparent we dodged not a bullet but a cannonball. The success of putting out the fire was a result of so many people – including the poultry companies – working together so well. I also do not discount that we had some divine intervention. I know I was asking God for whatever help He could give us – and probably some luck.

I remember a Winnie the Pooh cartoon I used to watch with my kids when they were small. Pooh said to Piglet, "You know, Piglet, the thing about bees is … you can never tell about bees." I would say the same thing about the avian influenza virus. You know, the thing about AI viruses is you can never tell about how they are going to act. We certainly were fortunate in our dealings with them this time. We will just keep our powder dry and be ready for the next time. And I think I may wait until I retire to attend another Buck Brannaman Colt Starting and Horsemanship Clinic … unless he retires first.



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