Rapid Response May Contain Further Bird-Flu Spread in U.S.

Egg Production At Organic Illinois Poultry Farm

Chickens stand outside a barn in Illinois, U.S. The U.S. government confirmed a highly pathogenic strain of H7N8 avian influenza in a commercial turkey flock in Indiana on Jan. 15. The virus was found in nine more flocks in southwestern Indiana.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
  • Virus detected in 10 Indiana commercial poultry flocks
  • European Union, Japan impose poultry import restrictions

A move to quickly quarantine and destroy Indiana turkey flocks infected with avian influenza may help prevent a repeat of last year’s outbreak that cost the industry $3.3 billion, according to officials.

“We’ve not found any additional cases since Saturday,” T.J. Myers, associate deputy administrator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, said in a Jan. 18 interview. “We’re hopeful that the virus has only been in poultry for a few weeks and that our containment activities will be successful and we won’t see further additional spread.”

The U.S. government confirmed a highly pathogenic strain of H7N8 avian influenza in a commercial turkey flock in Indiana on Jan. 15. The virus was found in nine more flocks in southwestern Indiana. Tests confirmed eight out of the nine have a low-pathogenic strain of the virus, the USDA said in a statement on Jan. 17.

The latest strain, which is different than the one that caused the 2015 outbreak, probably infected one or two farms before mutating into a highly pathogenic version, Myers said. The virus has affected about 400,000 turkeys on 10 farms, he said.

Highly pathogenic strains spread rapidly and are often fatal in chicken and turkeys, USDA’s APHIS has said. Birds with low pathogenic strains often show no signs of infection or have only minor symptoms.

Deli Shortages

The 2015 U.S. outbreak, which ended in June, led to record-high egg prices and caused some shortages of turkey deli meat used in subs and sandwiches. It cost the industry $3.3 billion and 50 million animals were destroyed.

“To the individual producer that’s affected it’s obviously significant and devastating,” Myers said. “We’re hoping to minimize the impact by responding as quickly as possible.”

Biosecurity practices, including sealing corn and soybean feed bins and changing clothes and footwear when entering and exiting a barn, have been effective in previous years, Keith Williams, a spokesman for the Washington-based National Turkey Federation, said in an e-mail.

“Finding these cases as low-path strains shows we are keeping pace ahead of the virus,” Williams said in the e-mailed statement.

Preventative Measures

Indiana’s poultry industry ranks fourth nationally in turkey production, first in duck production and third in eggs. It is also a significant producer of broiler chickens.

The European Union, South Africa, Japan, Ukraine and South Korea are among countries that have imposed some restrictions on poultry imports following the Indiana case, according to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Some states that haven’t been affected are accelerating efforts to prevent the virus. Virginia, which has been on high alert because of cases in other parts of the country, purchased new equipment, held training exercises and sent teams to the Midwest last summer to assist in outbreaks, Richard Wilkes, state veterinarian with the Virginia Department of Agriculture, said Jan. 18 in an e-mailed statement.

“We don’t want it in Virginia,” Wilkes said in the statement. “And one of our best prevention strategies is to practice proper biosecurity.”

Faster Containment

Quarantining and destroying infected animals quickly was one of the key lessons learned from last year’s outbreak, Myers said. Depopulating flocks took “far too long” in many cases. Officials have more equipment to destroy animals faster with water-based foaming or carbon dioxide, he said.

In some instances, barn ventilators are shut off so the birds die within a few hours.

“If need be we can use that to try and eliminate the virus as quickly as possible so we don’t put more birds at risk,” Myers said.