Avian influenza outbreak slowing; vaccination questions loom

By Spencer Chase

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 3, 2015 - A disease that's affected more than 45 million of America's chickens, turkeys, and wild birds appears to be slowing, leading industry and government officials to discuss steps to prevent a similar outbreak in the fall.

May was the busiest month for the disease, which first appeared late last year, but reported detections slowed in the latter half of the month. According to data from USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), there were 28 cases in the last two weeks of the month compared to 23 in the second full week of the month (May 10-16) and 36 in the week beginning May 3. The busiest period for the disease was between April 19 and May 9, when all three weeks had 30 or more cases reported by APHIS accounting for 29.1 million depopulated birds.

< Together we can feed the Bees" div>As of June 1, avian flu killed or resulted in the euthanization of more than 45 million birds in 206 detections. Even if no more detections are reported, the total number of birds depopulated will likely continue to climb due to 14 cases listed as “pending.”

In an interview with Agri-Pulse, John Glisson, vice president of research programs with the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, noted the spread of the disease was “slowing down very significantly.” When asked why, Glisson noted that the migratory flocks thought to be spreading the disease have continued their move north, biosecurity continues to improve, warmer weather can kill the virus, and frankly, he said, there just aren't as many birds to infect.

“The areas where there was so much virus to begin with, most or a large number of those flocks have been depopulated so there's not as many birds in those areas anymore,” Glisson said. “So it's a number of factors. It's certainly going in the right direction. It's great that it's beginning to slow down.”

Meanwhile, officials are still dealing with the backlog of carcass disposals, while preparing for a possible uptick in detections in the fall, when migratory flocks head back south.

One possible method of disease prevention has been vaccination. But as Glisson put it, “it's not a magic bullet by any stretch. It's not even a good bullet really.” He said there is no specific vaccine for the H5N2 strain responsible for 99.4 percent of the depopulated birds, but he and John Clifford, chief veterinary office for USDA and deputy administrator for veterinary services for APHIS, noted one is being researched at the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory in Athens, Georgia, under USDA's Agricultural Research Service. In the meantime, Clifford is faced with the decision of whether or not to allow the use of vaccines that have been used against similar - but not identical - strains in other countries.

APHIS had solicited comment on allowing the use of those vaccines, and Clifford told Agri-Pulse he would like to make the final decision on their use “pretty soon.” Glisson said even if the vaccinations are approved, they will simply be one additional way producers would work to combat the spread of the disease.

“Nobody's thinking that this is the answer, but as a tool for eradication if the virus comes back this fall, having those flocks partially immune might decrease the number of cases, “ Glisson said. “But that's a big unknown and it's very questionable how well it would work.”

Meanwhile, the National Association of Egg Farmers is urging APHIS to approve an indemnity plan for egg producers affected by the massive depopulation, as required by government regulations. The group is recommending an indemnity of about 20 cents per chicken for birds at 95 weeks of age, when they are at the end of their egg-producing stage, to about  $7.20 cents for birds at 20 weeks of age, whey they are just beginning to produce eggs.

Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, is also calling on the House Agriculture Committee to hold a hearing on establishing a federal poultry insurance program to provide needed assistance to farmers in his home state and across the nation. He pointed out that more than a sixth of Iowa's egg producing chickens have had to be euthanized, leaving farmers without a safety net to protect their livelihood. 

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