Effects of bird flu linger for public and poultry farmers

Chickens at the UNL Poultry Farm.

UNL Poultry Farm chickens avoided contracting the bird flu.

The deaths of 48.1 million birds affected by last fall’s avian influenza served as a costly lesson for poultry farmers and the public.

“It has definitely made producers more vigilant about their biosecurity plans and their emergency plans if they do have to euthanize and dispose of birds,” said Shelia Purdum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor of poultry nutrition. “It made everyone more conscious of the fact that we can’t take the health of our birds for granted.”

Yet the threat of another outbreak is far from over, experts say. Seasonal conditions favor spread of the disease. And federal and state officials continue to closely monitor all aspects of the situation, including the health of farm workers and bird disposal sites. They want to prevent further problems, including mutations of the strain that could affect humans.

First detected last December, the bird flu hit 15 states with Nebraska losing 3.7 million birds, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Wild waterfowl carried the flu strain, H5N2, and spread it as they migrated through the Midwest. Domestic birds lacked the natural immunity to the virus, which led to the egg industry losing a large number of its egg-producing hens.

Consumers were hit with high egg prices of nearly $3 in June, although prices should drop after the upcoming holidays. The shortage in liquid egg product, used in cake mixes and other products, led the U.S. government to change laws to allow the Netherlands to export the product for the first time in more than a decade.

Bird flu scare not over yet

That shortage may last as the bird flu seasonally moves from the Central Flyway (from Montana to Nebraska) over to the Mississippi Flyway, which includes Iowa and Minnesota.

Officials are worried the bird flu will keep its annual eastward movement, especially since heat and dry kill the virus, Purdum said. Although the wild birds’ migrations are over, the virus can survive in cold ponds for up to two weeks.

“So what are we heading into right now?” she asked. “Cool weather and wet.”

Bird Flu Infections by State

View interactive data visualizations of the USDA bird flu data by clicking on the image.

Fear of another outbreak caused the USDA to release a fall 2015 response plan. One requirement is that producers establish emergency policies for prevention, euthanasia and disposal. According to Purdum, the biggest change was allowing chicken farmers to move forward with euthanasia and disposal after sending samples to the USDA lab in Ames, Iowa.

“The bureaucracy of getting from the positive confirmation through the USDA officials and then back to the producers was creating a tremendous backlog,” Purdum said. “As the flocks got sick, the virus was spreading before the producers were able to euthanize the birds and keep them from multiplying the virus.”

One Iowa farm was forced to wait 21 days for confirmation to euthanize its birds. The delay in euthanasia affected neighbors because bio-containment to control the spread of the disease impacts all people who physically visit the farm as they could spread the avian flu.

“The plans for those farms have to include suppliers, whether it’s the feed mill truck or the UPS delivery guy,” Purdum said. At a poultry convention, she heard about an incident where a carbon dioxide gas tank deliveryman—after delivering to several affected farms—chatted with the gate check person about his busy day.

“Would you let that guy drive into your clean facility?” Purdum asked. “No, but the delivery person hadn’t even thought about the fact that they could be transmitting disease.”

Poultry workers at biggest risk

Workers contracted to work on infected farms have the burden of controlling the disease’s spread, handling the mental toil of the disposal and preventing the virus’ mutation. Although this avian flu can’t infect humans, mutations have occurred in other avian flu strains. If a worker is already sick with the flu and then contracts the avian flu, the bird flu virus could mutate into a strain affecting both humans and birds.

“Those are the scenarios that people are worried about it,” said Nebraska State Epidemiologist Tom Safranek. His office helped to monitor the health of affected workers by watching for flu-like symptoms and alerting local hospitals about the virus.

In addition to the virus’s mutation, the public was also concerned about the safe disposal of the millions of dead birds, according to Purdum.

“The toll of disposal is tremendous,” she said.

Even though the last bird flu outbreak was in June, local bird farms are still limiting access, according to Purdum.

For UNL Poultry Farm manager Leo Sweet, who works with Purdum, the precautions to protect his 1,700 flock are worth the effort.

“Thankfully we didn’t show any signs of influenza in our flock so we were very fortunate and happy about that,” Sweet said. “Once your flock has it, that’s the end.”

Leo Sweet discusses the UNL Poultry Farm’s biosecurity precautions:

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