The state will suspend public shows and sales of live poultry starting in mid-August in an attempt to stop the spread of avian flu, state officials announced Thursday.
State Veterinarian Doug Meckes made the decision to suspend the shows in anticipation of a potential spread of bird flu to North Carolina this fall, when waterfowl migrate south for the winter. Almost 50 million birds have been killed as a result of the virus in the country so far, but it has not yet spread to the Southeast.
“There’s a significant likelihood that it will come to North Carolina,” Meckes said in an interview. “It’s a significant threat to our industry.”
North Carolina is the country’s fourth-largest producer of chickens for meat and the third-largest producer of turkeys, state officials said.
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Eleven other states have enacted similar bans on public poultry shows and sales, while others have modified rules for the shows, Meckes said.
The North Carolina ban would run from Aug. 15 to Jan. 15, and it means the popular poultry exhibit at the N.C. State Fair in October will be canceled. Last year, more than 300 people entered birds in poultry shows at the fair. The suspension also means that children who raise chickens or turkeys in 4-H programs will not have the chance to display them in shows.
Wake County’s 4-H poultry program is relatively small, with only 14 families raising chickens. But Heather Schaffer, who coordinates the program in Wake County, said the suspension would be a disappointment to them.
“I think it’s very sad on the kid’s behalf,” Schaffer said, but added that it was an opportunity to make good on the program’s mission to show children how to care for animals.
“You might not be happy that you don’t get to show your chicken, but it’s part of being a responsible animal keeper,” she said.
Because the disease is spread by wild birds, even chickens raised individually and free-range chickens can come in contact with the virus, Meckes said.
The officials announced steps that individuals can take to prevent introduction of the virus to their birds, primarily by preventing contact with waterfowl. They suggested keeping the birds away from ponds and streams or sheltering them inside, and reducing risk of transmitting the disease through human contact by using dedicated shoes and clothing to care for birds.
Meckes said that humans have contributed to the spread of the virus and that the state wants to reduce the risk any way that it can.
“The commercial poultry industry is $18 billion in the state of North Carolina,” he said. “And I suspect that these smaller sales pale in comparison to that.”
The H5N2 strain of the avian flu virus has killed birds in 21 states, mostly in the Midwest, and Meckes called it the most significant animal disease outbreak in U.S. history.
Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler outlined other preparations the state was making for a potential outbreak, such as acquiring equipment to kill infected birds and working with other states on response methods.
Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has no plans to fight the virus with a vaccine. The vaccines developed thus far have not proven to be effective enough to warrant emergency use, according to the department.
The virus poses little risk to human health, the state officials said, adding that properly cooked poultry and eggs are safe to eat. No humans have been infected with this particular strain of avian flu, according to the USDA.