Wary Delaware keeping close eye on avian flu’s march east

According to the Delmarva Poultry Industry, 569 million chickens were raised on the Delmarva Peninsula in 2014. The University of Delaware Cooperative Extension reported “poultry and related industries contributed $3.2 billion to the Delaware economy” in 2011. (Submitted/Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.)

According to the Delmarva Poultry Industry, 569 million chickens were raised on the Delmarva Peninsula in 2014. The University of Delaware Cooperative Extension reported “poultry and related industries contributed $3.2 billion to the Delaware economy” in 2011. (Submitted/Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.)

DOVER — Delaware officials and poultry owners are bracing for the arrival of 5N2, better known as avian flu.

An outbreak of that specific strain that began in the West at the end of last year is moving east and could arrive in Delaware by the start of fall.

The flu has had a large impact on the Midwest region of the country. The U.S. Agriculture Department reported 48 million birds have been affected, with most of them in the central United States.

While so far the virus has not affected humans, state officials are preparing for a possible outbreak on the Delmarva Peninsula, a major producer of poultry products.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials also blame the increase of egg prices over the past year on avian influenza in the Midwest because the destruction of commercial flocks created an egg shortage.

Delaware’s poultry industry primarily is geared to produce meat.

Avian flu is transmitted through bird droppings and the air, with wild birds often carrying the disease to backyard or commercial poultry. It varies in its effect depending on how pathogenic it is.

The type afflicting the Midwest is known as highly pathogenic avian influenza and carries with it a mortality rate in chickens of upward of 90 percent, according to Jack Gelb. He’s the director of the University of Delaware’s Avian Biosciences Center and has been working with state and federal officials to prepare for the spread.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza is easier to identify, Dr. Gelb said. Birds with serious cases of avian flu simply seem “off,” he said, with ruffled feathers and a disrupted eating schedule.

However, the extremely high mortality rate could have serious consequences for Delaware if the virus gains a foothold.

“If we have an incident in commercial chickens, it will cause a lot of consternation, and if it is not contained and if it spreads like it did in Minnesota and Iowa there will be severe economic repercussions,” said Bill Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.

According to the organization, which represents chicken farmers, 569 million chickens were raised on the Delmarva Peninsula in 2014. The University of Delaware Cooperative Extension reported “poultry and related industries contributed $3.2 billion to the Delaware economy” in 2011.

The Delaware Department of Agriculture, working with the Delmarva Poultry Industry and Delaware and Maryland Cooperative Extension has hosted informational sessions for commercial growers, with more to come.

A website exists to provide details to concerned citizens. The website, at//de.gov/birdflu, contains resources and announcements for state residents who could be affected by avian flu or are seeking to learn more.

Officials touted Delaware’s safety measures, noting commercial chickens are tested before they are sold, and farmers are trained to be aware of the signs.

Delaware has developed a detailed plan on how to prevent the virus, as well as how to respond to an outbreak if need be. A 2004 incident of low pathogenic flu did not have a major effect on the state, fortunately for poultry growers.

“It’s all been discussed to a great degree here in Delaware and other places to make sure that we’re caring for the human side of this,” Dr. Gelb said. “The main danger right now is chickens.”

Biosecurity is the top concern for officials, who stress that farmers can help prevent H5N2 from taking hold by engaging in some simple and often common-sense practices.

Restricting the number of people who can enter a chicken house lowers the risk someone will track the virus in. As for people who must go into a chicken dwelling, they should own separate clothes and footwear to be used solely for each individual building.

Birds should be kept separate from wild fowl, and individuals are urged to report any sick or dying birds, be they untamed or domestic.

Fortunately for Delaware residents, there is no health risk to people at this point.

“It’s also critical to point out that there are no immediate public health concerns from avian influenza in other states and that avian influenza does not affect poultry meat or egg products, which are safe to eat when properly prepared,” said Dan Shortridge, a spokesman for the Delaware Department of Agriculture.

However, experts emphasize the virus is unpredictable, and so constant vigilance of both birds and people around them is needed. Basic household disinfectants are highly effective.

Any dead birds reported to the state will be tested in Newark or Georgetown by the University of Delaware to determine if they carry avian flu.

While the virus has affected many commercial farms in the central United States, authorities are preparing for wild geese migrating down from Canada. Those birds could carry avian flu, and infected droppings easily could be spread to backyard or commercial chickens if people are not careful.

According to the USDA, no new detections have been reported since the middle of June — a good sign for the East Coast.

Delaware likely will have to be on alert for several months, until the wild bird flyby is finished, Dr. Gelb said.

The best cure is prevention.

“We don’t have a crystal ball — no one does — so we are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best,” Mr. Shortridge said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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