WASHINGTON, Nov. 4, 2015 - Although the last detection of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in the U.S. was almost five months ago, USDA officials remain on watch for a potential winter wave of the deadly bird virus.

Last December, the first instance of HPAI was detected in a flock of 130 birds in Douglas County, Oregon. Within six months, the disease had resulted in the deaths of more than 48 million chickens and turkeys. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) spent over $801 million in efforts to deal with the emergency and in indemnity payments to producers. The disease initially was spread by wild waterfowl on migratory patterns headed North, leading officials to worry that those same type of birds could spread the disease again as they head South for the winter.

In an interview with Agri-Pulse, John Clifford, APHIS’ deputy administrator for veterinary services, said he’s hoping the disease won’t return, but he pointed out that in the recent outbreak, HPAI wasn’t detected until December last year.

“We all hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but it’s too early in my opinion to say one way or the other” if the disease will return, he said. Surveillance of migratory birds continues, but Clifford said no cases of the disease have been detected since June with the exception of one “resident bird” in Utah in July. In October, a test of just over 750 ducks shot in Minnesota, where almost 9 million birds were killed this past spring, saw traces of the low pathogenic strain of the disease – which is not unusual – but no HPAI infections were detected.

Clifford thinks APHIS is “very well prepared” for a potential outbreak in the coming months. Since the last outbreak, APHIS has hired about 200 people and trained them in surveillance and early response procedures. The agency has also updated protocols to try to ensure infected facilities are depopulated within 24 hours of disease confirmation, and staged equipment in optimal places.

“We’re ready if we have to react,” Clifford said.

Clifford said APHIS has also streamlined the process for indemnifying producers, but noted that there is still some work to do on calculating payments.

APHIS hopes to add up to 500 million doses of HPAI vaccines to the National Veterinary Stockpile, but Clifford – mindful that some countries restrict imports of poultry meat from vaccinated birds -- said those vaccines would only be used “in very limited conditions.” Two vaccines have been approved to help prevent illness in birds, but APHIS has not decided whether or not to OK the vaccines use. In the event that it does, the state where the vaccine is being applied would also have to approve its use.


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