USDA releases battle plan for possible bird flu return

By Daniel Enoch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Sept. 18, 2015 - USDA today released a preparedness and response plan to combat future outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), which decimated commercial chicken and turkey flocks in the Midwest earlier this year.

The 19-page plan, prepared by USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, notes that biosecurity efforts at poultry farms, including limiting visitor traffic and providing boot-washing stations, have been strengthened; surveillance efforts of wild bird populations, which serve as a reservoir of the HPAI virus, have been increased; and state and industry response capabilities have been improved. Additionally, response teams are better organized, and now have better training and IT support.

APHIS also says it is preparing for the possible use of vaccines, which were not available in any significant amounts at the start of the recent outbreak, and that it has improved its capacity for depopulating infected flocks and streamlined the process by which farmers are indemnified for losses.

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“USDA, along with its partners, has learned a great deal through the experience of responding to the largest animal health event in our history,” APHIS says in the plan's introduction. “Throughout the experience, we have altered and improved our response capabilities and processes in real time to provide the most effective services possible. We collected scientific data on the field viruses and from affected premises. We listened to producers, our state partners, academia, our responders, and other stakeholders to identify additional means for improvement and to be better prepared should cases return in the future. This plan reflects that learning experience.”

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In planning for a possible recurrence of an outbreak this fall, when cooler weather returns and the wild birds that harbor the virus migrate south, APHIS assumed a “worst-case scenario” in which 500 or more commercial establishments could be affected, or more than double the 211 premises impacted between December 2014 and June 17, when the last case was identified. During that period - mostly in April and May -- some 7.5 million turkeys and more than 42 million egg-layer and pullet chickens were killed by the virus or had to be destroyed, devastating businesses and costing taxpayers in excess of $950 million.

On indemnification, APHIS noted that the government pays 100 percent of fair market value for birds destroyed due to HPAI, but said the way it calculates that value must be updated regularly.  It also said that recent discussions with representatives from the egg industry “resulted in a change to our calculator to make it more reflective of current industry standards for the productive lifespan of layers.”

APHIS also said it has streamlined paperwork requirements before it can process indemnity payments, which will contribute significantly toward achieving a goal of depopulation within 24 hours of the virus being identified.

Vaccination is likely the most complex of all aspects of the response to HPAI, APHIS said. In June, the agency issued a determination that vaccines would not be incorporated in the HPAI response at that time, citing the lack of a vaccine that was well matched to the current outbreak virus. At the same time, APHIS said it would reassess the vaccine question later when more effective vaccines were available.

In August, APHIS put out a proposal for private sector manufacturers to develop a vaccine that could be ready for fall or winter. A number of vaccines are under development and APHIS said USDA may choose to select one or more for stockpiling. APHIS said it intends to use vaccines as “a possible adjunct to, and not as a replacement for, a future eradication effort.” A decision on whether to deploy vaccines will depend on the extent of the outbreak, the sectors of the industry being affected, and the possible effects on international trade.

The government's depopulation strategy may prove to be the most controversial part of the plan. APHIS says there is common agreement that depopulation of an infected facility within 24 hours of an HPAI diagnosis is “optimal” to reduce the risk that the disease will spread. Additionally, it said rapid depopulation is necessary to spare birds from suffering death from HPAI. Still, it said while standard methods including use of a deadly foam or CO2 are preferred, sometimes it may be necessary to use a method known as “ventilation shutdown.”

“Ventilation shutdown requires no specialized equipment or personnel and can be implemented immediately,” once officials determine that it's the only option to achieve the 24-hour depopulation goal. Using this method, APHIS said, “could save the lives of thousands of birds by reducing the risk of disease spread.”

The Humane Society of the United States said shutting down the ventilation system in large poultry barns “essentially bakes the birds to death over a period of time which can last hours and involves intense suffering.”

In a release, Michael Blackwell, the chief veterinary officer for HSUS, said USDA and the industry need to find a better way to contain the spread of bird flu.

“Animals suffer immensely with any outbreak of an epidemic like avian influenza, and we shouldn't compound the problems for birds by subjecting them to a particularly miserable and protracted means of euthanasia,” Blackwell said, calling for research and field testing of more humane methods, along with a public comment period on the issue.

The USDA response plan was released on the same day that the leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee asked the department for more information regarding its efforts to prepare for a possible return this fall of the HPAI outbreak.

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