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Avian influenza (AI) is a serious disease concern for poultry producers and animal health officials. While influenza strains in birds, just as in people, vary considerably in severity, some influenza viruses can be devastating to domestic poultry.

Questions and Answers about Avian Influenza in Poultry


Avian influenza, or “bird flu,” is a virus that infects domestic poultry, such as chickens, turkey, quail, and geese, and wild birds such as shorebirds and waterfowl. There are no human health concerns from the strains of avian influenza that have been reported in the United States.

Avian influenza is a serious disease concern for poultry producers and animal health officials. While influenza strains in birds, just as in people, vary considerably in severity, some influenza viruses can be devastating to domestic poultry.

Generally, we know that avian influenza can be transmitted by wild birds or waterfowl. Our family farmers take biosecurity steps every day to keep their flocks healthy and safe. The virus can be transmitted on shoes, vehicles or equipment, which is why we are asking everyone with poultry to take the proper precautions and use strict biosecurity protocols.

Basic biosecurity steps include:

  • Limit, monitor and record any movement of people, vehicles or animals on or off your farm.
  • Permit only essential workers and vehicles to enter the farm to limit the chances of bringing the virus from an outside source.
  • Avoid visiting other poultry farms.
  • Disinfect equipment, vehicles, footwear and other items that come in contact with flocks.
  • Keep your flock away from wild or migratory birds, especially waterfowl.
  • Isolate any ill animals and contact your veterinarian.

Human infection with avian influenza viruses does not normally occur. Please refer to the current CDC webpage for information about humans contracting avian influenza.

Delaware has a comprehensive response plan that brings together partners from the federal government, surrounding states, other state agencies, the poultry industry, and our universities. The strength and success of our homegrown poultry industry in Delaware and on Delmarva means that everyone here is fully united in fighting this virus if it comes here. We have held several workshops to reach both commercial poultry growers and back-yard flock owners and educate them about preparedness steps, symptoms, and how to report possible diseases. That effort has also included mailings and posters in farm supply stores.
There are vaccines available, but any use of these products must be approved by state and federal agencies.
Consumers should be fully confident that their chicken and eggs are safe to eat if properly prepared. That means cooking poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, and washing preparation surfaces, utensils and hands – just like when your family cooks chicken every day. We can guarantee that no flock moves into the human food supply without being tested for avian influenza.
Every commercial flock in Delaware is tested for avian influenza before it moves into the human food supply. Testing is done through collaboration with the University of Delaware’s Laboratory System. Samples that are found to be non-negative at the University of Delaware Laboratory are sent to the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa for confirmation.

Symptoms of avian influenza in poultry include:

  • Sudden death without other clinical signs
  • Lack of energy and appetite
  • Swelling of the heat, eyelids, comb, wattles and hocks
  • Purple discoloration of the wattles, combs and legs
  • Nasal discharge
  • Coughing or sneezing
  • Lack of coordination
  • Diarrhea
  • Decreased egg production; soft-shelled or misshapen eggs
  • Torticollis / twisted neck
A control area will be established around an affected farm; there will be little impact to non-farmers who live in the area. Movement of poultry and supply trucks (e.g., feed, hatchery trucks, fuel deliveries) to or from farms will be restricted and subject to permitting. Flocks in the control area will undergo additional testing, carry out biosecurity checklists, and have state-issued permits to move birds.
All bird flocks on an affected farm are likely to be depopulated under federal and state policy to prevent the avian influenza virus from spreading. This is an unfortunate but necessary measure when we are dealing with catastrophic diseases like HPAI. This process is carried out using approved veterinary protocols. All methods are carried out with guidance from USDA, State animal health officials, and poultry veterinarians.
After the flocks are depopulated, the carcasses will be composted. For broiler chickens, they will be composted in the poultry house itself. Composting is the method used for normal poultry mortality, though on a smaller scale. Like any composting, this process will raise the heat to 130 degrees Fahrenheit for sufficient time to kill the virus. Once the compost has been sufficiently heated, it can be removed from the house and disposed of in a variety of ways. One common way may be to be spread on farm fields if regulations permit. There should be no concern that the compost will carry the virus. The poultry houses then undergo an extensive and lengthy cleaning, decontamination, and testing process. Only when they are declared virus-free and have obtained permission from USDA and state animal health officials will new birds be permitted back in.
We have dealt successfully with avian influenza before, in 2004 with a case of low-pathogenic avian influenza. Two farms were affected in Delaware and one in Maryland.
Delaware has approximately 700 commercial poultry farms, with up to 50 million chickens being raised in the state at any given time. Our family farms raise more than 240 million broiler chickens each year. Several thousand families depend upon poultry for work in processing and other fields. The direct impact is $1.7 billion, with the total economic contribution estimated at $3.3 billion (U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, 2016). We understand there will be concern about the impact on individual family farms and on the sector in general, which is why we are prepared to act quickly and decisively to control its spread and eradicate the virus if it is found in Delaware.
There are about 1,000 back yard flocks registered in Delaware as required by state law. Anyone with one or more chickens or other poultry species must be registered with the Department of Agriculture. The database was instituted about a decade ago; we work to keep it updated and notify new poultry owners as soon as we are aware of them.
Our primary goal is to prevent the virus from spreading by maintaining tight controls and using effective biosecurity practices. If Delaware does have a case, we will not disclose the location or identity of the farm to prevent the disease from spreading to other farms with poultry. We do not want to have people visiting or driving by that location and potentially tracking avian influenza virus to another location and spreading it even wider.

 


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