Biosecurity lapses among factors in spread of bird flu, USDA finds

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, June 15, 2015 - USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) says initial indications are that the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) blamed for the deaths of millions of chickens and turkeys since December was being transmitted to new premises in a number of ways, including lapses in biosecurity practices and environmental factors.

While wild birds are responsible for introducing the virus into the U.S., the epidemiology report released today suggests APAI was spreading in other ways, APHIS said. For instance, the report provides evidence that a certain cluster of farms was affected by identical viruses, pointing to possible transmission among those farms. In addition, genetic analyses of the HPAI viruses suggest that independent introductions as well as transmission between farms were occurring in several states concurrently.

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The National Turkey Foundation said it has been working with APHIS since mid-March and helped design the scope and certain aspects of the research, which focused on turkey farms in five states from April through early June. Field-based observations were compiled from surveys completed by 81 farms in the five affected states, NTF said.

The APHIS report said the virus may have been spread in some areas by sharing of equipment between an infected and noninfected farm; by employees moving between farms; by lack of cleaning and disinfection of vehicles moving between farms; and through rodents or small wild birds inside the poultry houses. APHIS said it is compiling these practices and will present its findings in an update of today's report.

In addition, APHIS found that air samples collected outside of infected poultry houses contain virus particles, indicating that the virus could be transmitted by air. Preliminary analysis of wind data shows a relationship between sustained high winds and an increase in the number of infected farms approximately five days later, APHIS said.

The agency stressed, however, that it “cannot associate HPAI transmission with one factor or group of factors in a statistically significant way at this time, and will continue to update this report regularly as more analyses are completed.”

APHIS said it will also continue to work with the states and the poultry industry to promote biosecurity, including an animal health meeting in July with federal, state and local officials as well as industry representatives. In addition, APHIS said it will continue to regularly communicate with its partners about all HPAI issues, hosting monthly calls with state agriculture officials, weekly calls with industry and state veterinary officials, and daily calls with officials in HPAI-affected states.

APHIS says that as of June 9, there were 222 detections of HPAI in 16 states, with more than 47 million chicken or turkeys killed by the virus or euthanized to prevent the spread of the disease. Hardest hit have been Iowa, the biggest egg-producing state, which has lost almost 31 million birds, mostly laying hens, and Minnesota, the biggest turkey producer, where about 9 million birds, mostly turkeys, have been killed or depopulated.

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