Avian flu threat puts Delaware poultry industry on ‘high alert’

A file photo of baby chicks in an incubator. Sussex County, the birthplace of the broiler chicken industry, produces more chickens than any other county in the United States. (Delaware State News file photo)

A file photo of baby chicks in an incubator. Sussex County, the birthplace of the broiler chicken industry, produces more chickens than any other county in the United States. (Delaware State News file photo)

DOVER — The avian influenza, or HPAI H5, has killed more than 48 million chickens and turkeys in the United States

Some agriculture experts fear the problem could get worse.

Although the virus hasn’t arrived Delaware yet, it poses a significant threat to the state’s poultry industry.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., invited a Delaware animal scientist to participate in a congressional hearing on the avian flu threat Wednesday.

Among witnesses scheduled to testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in Washington was Jack Gelb Jr., director of the Avian Biosciences Center at the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The hearing looked into the response to the current outbreak of avian influenza and preparations if it starts to spread during the fall migratory season.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has confirmed HPAI in 21 states, mostly in the Midwest, and it believes wild birds are to blame for the flu.

The impact in Delaware could be devastating. Sussex County, the birthplace of the broiler chicken industry, produces more chickens than any other county in the United States, Sen. Carper said.

The Delmarva region already dealt with a mild avian influenza outbreak in 2004, Dr. Gelb said.

“We were very fortunate to have a successful outcome because of advance planning and rapid implementation of the regional response planning by our incident command system,” he said. “We’re very fortunate in Delaware to have many outstanding experts in the poultry health field.”

In the end, only three farms tested positive in the incident, Dr. Gelb said, “…which is remarkable given the very high densities of poultry and farms in the Delmarva region.”

According to Dr. Gelb, “recognition at the earliest stage of the disease is critical.”

Avian influenza is highly contagious, he said; it will multiply “to enormous concentrations in poultry.”

As the director at the Avian Biosciences Center, Dr. Gelb coordinates teaching and research activities and participates in national and international outreach. He also oversees the center’s poultry disease surveillance efforts and works closely with the agricultural sector.

Farmers need to implement an emergency bio-security plan as soon as avian influenza strikes, he said. Infect flocks should be depopulated within 24 hours.

In the future, Dr. Gelb recommended more educational outreach for farmers to help them respond to the disease.

He said bio-security is “probably the single greatest weapon against avian influenza” but that it isn’t consistently applied by all farmers and poultry companies.

Dr. Gelb also recommended revamping emergency plans for a more rapid response; providing an insurance program for poultry farmers who contract with companies to raise their flocks; and working on a vaccination for controlling the disease in poultry.

There are limitations to vaccines, he added. Even under the best conditions, vaccines aren’t always effective and more research is needed on them, Dr. Gelb said.

Finally, he said, terrestrial wild birds may help spread avian influenza. Experts have known for years that wild waterfowl like ducks and geese are the main carriers for the disease, but research suggests birds like finches and sparrows support virus replication. They could be “bridge vectors,” carrying the virus to poultry and maybe even humans, he said.

To protect against avian influenza, the state Department of Agriculture recently announced it is prohibiting waterfowl entries in the poultry competitions at the Delaware State Fair, July 23-Aug. 1 in Harrington.

Ducks and geese won’t be exhibited. Exhibitions of chickens, quail, pheasants, turkeys and other birds will take place, but all birds will be tested for avian influenza by the Department of Agriculture personnel before the fair begins.

Avian influenza spreads bird-to-bird through saliva, feces and other bodily fluids.

Sen. Carper said Wednesday the country has lost millions of chickens and turkeys to the disease, “and the economic losses are staggering.”

“If that’s not bad enough, some of our biggest trading partners have temporarily closed their doors to our poultry exports and in some instances these bans affect not just one state but every state that produces poultry products,” he said

There is good news, though; there hasn’t been an outbreak since mid-June, and broiler chickens have yet to contract the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the risk to people to be low and no human cases of these HPAI H5 viruses have been detected in the United States, Canada or internationally.

But Sen. Carper said it’s “not a time to rest on our laurels.”

“The possibility of new outbreaks, even here on the East Coast, is real, and all of us need to remain on high alert,” Sen. Carper said.

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