NC prepares for the arrival of deadly bird flu

Some of the egg laying hens at the Little Birdie Chicken Farm and Hatchery in Wake Forest, N.C. on Thursday, August 6, 2015.
Some of the egg laying hens at the Little Birdie Chicken Farm and Hatchery in Wake Forest, N.C. on Thursday, August 6, 2015. clowenst@newsobserver.com

Wild birds migrating south this winter may bring a virus to North Carolina that is highly contagious and deadly to poultry. The strain of avian influenza is already responsible for the deaths of nearly 50 million birds, mostly in the Midwest – the deadliest animal disease outbreak in U.S. history.

The disease has not been detected in any Southeastern states, but there is a “significant” chance it will hit North Carolina birds in the fall, according to State Veterinarian Doug Meckes.

State officials and farmers are making extensive preparations. The state has suspended public shows and sales of live poultry, including the popular poultry exhibit at the N.C. State Fair in October and is stockpiling machines used to kill birds quickly in case of an outbreak. Large farms are taking steps to limit exposure of their flocks, and owners of backyard chickens are being urged to do the same.

Unlike a natural disaster like a hurricane, avian flu is an invisible threat to the state’s massive poultry industry, which makes it difficult for officials to prepare.

“You can’t see it, you can’t project it on maps,” said Sharron Stewart, who directs the Department of Agriculture’s emergency planning efforts. “That’s probably the single most difficult thing, just not knowing where it is gonna pop up.”

Highly pathogenic avian influenza has killed birds in 15 states, and has been found in three flyways, or migratory bird paths, in the West and Midwest, but not the Atlantic flyway that passes over North Carolina. The H5N2 virus is of mixed origin – a cross between an Asian-origin virus and a North American virus, and is very infectious and deadly. Less dangerous bird flus are common in wild and domestic birds worldwide.

Animal diseases, including bird flus, have mutated and infected humans in the past. But no human cases of this strain of bird flu virus have been reported, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not consider it a danger to humans.

Sarah Mason, the state Agriculture Department’s director of animal health programs for poultry, learned firsthand the impact the disease can have on agriculture at a national meeting, when she sat next to an Iowa farmer who lost two million laying hens.

“The disease is devastating to farmers,” Mason said.

There is no insurance for the disease, but the federal government pays some money to the owners of birds killed by the flu, to encourage farmers to report outbreaks as soon as possible.

Keeping virus out

Wild birds are known to carry the virus – though they do not get sick – so farmers are focused on eliminating any potential contact between wild birds and their domestic flocks.

That contact is often indirect, Meckes said. For example, a farmer might track waste from a wild bird into a chicken house, which would allow the disease to spread.

“People have been a significant mover of this virus,” he said.

In an April letter to poultry producers, the Department of Agriculture’s veterinary division recommended that all poultry with outside access be moved indoors, and that strict security procedures be implemented to eliminate chances for contact with wild waterfowl.

Tyson Foods, which contracts with 5,000 family farms nationwide to produce poultry and owns birds in North Carolina, is on “heightened biosecurity status,” according to spokesman Worth Sparkman.

The farms prohibit non-essential personnel from entering farm property and take extra steps to ensure that vehicles that travel to and from farms are disinfected. Sparkman added that the company tests all Tyson-owned birds for disease before they leave the farm; if a flock is diagnosed with highly pathogenic avian influenza the farm is quarantined and the birds are not processed for sale.

Small farms, too

“Strict biosecurity” may not be familiar language to North Carolina’s many backyard chicken owners, but the disease has struck backyards in other states. Flocks as small as 10 chickens have reported outbreaks.

Ben Alig, 19, studies poultry science at N.C. State University and runs a small hatchery with his family in Wake Forest. He has changed protocol at the hatchery and tells backyard chicken owners to also change their practices to protect their flocks from disease.

Alig stopped showing his flock of full-grown chickens to his customers, in case they might bring disease into the house with them. He also advises against letting the chickens out into the backyard, because they might come in contact with wild birds.

“I’m urging people to, if they can, stop free ranging their chickens,” Alig said.

He has a pair of rubber boots that he wears into the coop to care for his chickens, and he said that he does not wear them anywhere else. He recommended his customers do the same.

“I have to be 100 percent sure that I’m not transferring anything back and forth,” Alig said.

Department of Agriculture officials asked all poultry owners to register their flocks in late July, to make communication and planning easier. Meckes likens the measure to the sticker that some parents place on their childrens’ windows for firefighters.

In the event of an outbreak, officials want to know what properties are at risk and be able to contact them.

Alig said he has no problem with registering, but he said some customers are refusing, because they think it a government intrusion or a threat to the chickens they have.

First responders

Officials hope that biosecurity practices, wild bird behavior, or a mutation in the virus will keep it out of the state, but they have prepared extensively for an appearance of the virus in a North Carolina flock.

The best response is to kill infected birds, and fast, Meckes said. The process, called depopulation, is done with foam that deprives the birds of oxygen, which is the most humane method, he said.

“If birds with virus are not quickly depopulated, they build up a heavy virus load,” he said.

He said birds with a significant amount of virus in their system are more likely to infect other birds, and potentially other flocks, through the air. Mason said that North Carolina is a dense poultry state, which increases the risk of infection through the air.

North Carolina currently has at least eight machines that fill chicken houses with foam to depopulate birds, and plans to have 16 machines ready to conduct a full emergency response, Stewart said. She said the state is modeling its response on the disease outbreak in Minnesota and plans to be able to depopulate birds on as many as 15 farms within 72 hours.

The USDA told Stewart that it is planning for a worst-case scenario, nationally, of outbreaks at 500 sites, but they did not provide a breakdown by state, she said.

North Carolina has long been better equipped and trained than others to deal with a large poultry disease outbreak, Meckes said. He sent teams and foam machines to Minnesota to help depopulate flocks in response to the outbreak there. Teams also met with officials from Midwestern states to learn from their experiences.

If North Carolina sees an outbreak, he said, the state will need to handle much of the response on its own, because other Southeastern states with large poultry populations will likely be hit, too, and be unable to help.

“If the disease makes its way down the Atlantic flyway down the East Coast, we’re not going to have a lot of outside help,” Meckes said.

Parts: 919-829-4520