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What is avian influenza?

Avian influenza is a virus that is carried by migratory waterfowl including ducks and geese. Domestic poultry, including chickens and turkeys are very susceptible to the disease. The current strain of avian influenza being reported in the United States is considered a high pathogen strain. Highly pathogenic avian influenza rarely causes disease in waterfowl but these birds can transmit it to domestic poultry where it can cause a severe disease with high mortalities. Lower pathogen strains still lead to infected birds, but do not have the high mortality rates.

Avian influenza

Secure coops are important part of backyard biosecurity

Where did it come from?

The virus is believed to have originated in Asia and spread through wild ducks and geese into Canada. From Canada, there are four major flyways that cross the United States that all migratory birds follow. Alabama is located on the Atlantic flyway.

How is avian influenza transmitted?

Infected waterfowl can shed the virus in secretions from the mouth, nostrils and eyes and also excrete it in their droppings. Contact with contaminated droppings is the most common means of bird-to-bird transmission, although airborne secretions are another important means of transmission, especially within poultry houses. The spread of avian influenza between poultry facilities can often be traced to the movement of infected birds or contaminated people and equipment (including clothing, boots and vehicles).

How important is effective biosecurity in reducing spread of avian influenza?

Practicing good sanitation and following appropriate biosecurity measures are the first line of defense against avian influenza. Strong biosecurity measures take many forms.

  • Isolating poultry from other animals
  • Restricting/minimizing access to people and unsanitized equipment
  • Keeping the area around the poultry buildings clean and uninviting to wild birds
  • Sanitizing the facility between flocks
  • Cleaning equipment entering and leaving the farm
  • Having an all in, all out policy regarding the placement and removal of the birds.
  • Properly disposing of bedding material and mortalities

 

What happens now that we have a confirmed case in Alabama?

  1. A control zone has been established around the site where the disease was confirmed. The control zone is made up of an infected zone, buffer zone and surveillance zone. The size of the zones may vary but generally are about 6 miles in diameter.
  2. Birds in the infected flock have been euthanized as a first measure to stop the spread of the disease.
  3. Testing is required at least weekly in the infected and buffer zones of all poultry premises. These samples will be collected by trained personnel and tested in one of the state diagnostic labs, amounting to thousands of samples daily.
  4. All flocks that test positive must have flock plans and compliance agreements to cover procedures necessary to develop response and emergency plans.
  5. Quarantine and control zones will restrict movement of poultry and equipment especially in the infected zone. Poultry plants in a control zone may experience delays. This could affect other industries also, especially the cattle industry if a stockyard or other livestock is located within a control zone.

What is the potential economic impact of an outbreak?

An outbreak of the deadly disease in Alabama has the potential to create a downtown in production in the state’s largest agri-business. Alabama is one of the nation’s leaders in broiler chicken production.

The state’s poultry industry creates more than $15 billion in revenue and employs more than 86,000 workers in the state, according to the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association.

Most poultry plants have an annual payroll of between $12 and $48 million. There are 19 poultry processing plants in Alabama, processing more than 21 million broilers per week.

Is chicken safe to eat?

Poultry remains safe to eat. You cannot get avian influenza from eggs or poultry products that have been prepared and cooked properly. Also, infected flocks do not enter the human food chain. After the birds are euthanized, their remains are safely disposed of using one of several methods.

 

Would vaccinating chickens solve the problem?

With more than $43 billion invested in national poultry production, the issue of vaccinating the flocks is a complicated matter. One of the issues federal officials face is weighing the consequences of vaccinating the birds. Vaccination records could increase poultry import restrictions by other countries, specifically Russia and China.

 

For additional information, contact Dr. Ken Macklin, Extension Poultry Scientist and professor of Poultry Science, Auburn University, (334) 844-4225 and macklks@auburn.edu or Maggie Lawrence, Alabama Extension New Unit Manager, (334) 844-5687 or lawremc@auburn.edu

 

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