Avian influenza proves threat to commercial, hobby flocks alike

In light of the recent occurrences of avian influenza in numerous other Midwestern states, the Indiana Board of Animal Health (BOAH) issued an advisory indicating that no cases of this highly contagious bird disease had been reported but that we were prepared in the event that they were.

Only two weeks later, BOAH issued a second statement indicating that Indiana now had joined the ranks of these other states with a reported diagnosed case of highly pathogenic H5N8 avian influenza being found in a home flock in Whitley County in Northern Indiana.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has been spreading rapidly in commercial poultry operations throughout the Mississippi Flyway, of which Indiana is a part; it is used by migratory waterfowl as they move north to their breeding grounds.

BOAH veterinarians collected samples from the flock after the owner reported several chickens became ill and died. The hobby flock contained 77 birds of various species including ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys. In a rapid response effort, all of the birds were removed from the site to ensure no ongoing risk of disease spread.

As dire as all of this might sound, it is important to say that avian influenza does not present a food safety risk, and poultry and eggs are safe to eat. The Centers for Disease Control considers the risk of illness to humans of this disease to be very low.

Indiana is a leading poultry-producing state, nationally ranked first in the production of ducks, second in egg-type hatch, third in egg-layers and fourth in turkeys, so anything that threatens the health of Indiana commercial flocks is taken very seriously.

During the past several years the number of home flocks used for eggs, meat or just enjoyment also have increased substantially, and this disease does not discriminate between commercially managed and home-raised birds. Only the scale of the potential for loss differs.

Avian influenza viruses can infect chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, ducks, geese and guinea fowl, as well as a wide variety of other birds.

HPAI is an extremely infectious and fatal form of the disease that, once established, can spread rapidly from flock to flock.

The clinical signs of birds affected with all forms of avian influenza could show one or more of the following: sudden death without clinical signs; lack of energy and appetite; decreased egg production; soft-shelled or misshapen eggs; swelling of the head, eyelids, comb, wattles and hocks; purple discoloration of the wattles, combs and legs; nasal discharge; coughing, sneezing; lack of coordination; and diarrhea.

In addition to migratory waterfowl, avian influenza viruses also can be spread by manure, equipment, vehicles, egg flats, crates and people whose clothing or shoes have come in contact with the virus.

Once introduced, the disease can be spread from bird to bird by direct contact.

AI viruses can remain viable at moderate temperatures for long periods in the environment and can survive indefinitely in frozen material.

Backyard poultry owners are encouraged to be aware of the signs of avian influenza and report illness and/or death to the USDA Healthy Birds Hotline: 866-536-7593. Callers will be routed to a state or federal veterinarian in Indiana for a case assessment. Dead birds should be double-bagged and refrigerated for possible testing.

By practicing biosecurity, owners can reduce the chances of birds being exposed to avian influenza.

“Biosecurity” might not be a common household word, but for poultry and bird owners it can spell the difference between health and disease.

The following biosecurity steps can help you keep birds healthy:

• Keep your distance. Isolate your birds from visitors and other birds.

• Keep it clean. Prevent germs from spreading by cleaning shoes, tools and equipment.

• Don’t haul disease home. Clean vehicles and cages.

• Don’t borrow disease from your neighbor. Avoid sharing tools and equipment with neighbors.

• Know the warning signs of infectious bird diseases. Watch for early signs to prevent the spread of disease.

• Report sick birds. Report unusual signs of disease or unexpected deaths.

A great resource for backyard bird health information is online at healthybirds.aphis.usda.gov.

Backyard poultry owners are encouraged to take steps to minimize their birds’ contact with wild bird species and any grounds or water where these birds have been present.

Hoosiers who notice unusual wild bird deaths (that is, five or more feeder-type bird deaths in close proximity) should report them to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources at 812-334-1137. The DNR wild bird biologists will make a determination about collecting the dead birds for surveillance testing.

Situation updates and status reports about ongoing avian influenza activities, along with critical disease-related information, will be posted online at in.gov/boah/2390.htm. Users may subscribe to email updates on a link at that page.

Additional information can be found at aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/birdbiosecurity/AI.