DES MOINES (Iowa) -- Iowa's poultry and turkey farms are on high alert. They are taking steps to improve biosecurity in the event of a new bird flu epidemic that claimed nearly 1 billion lives and killed 50 million birds in 15 states.
This new fear was triggered by the Feb. 9 announcement of the virus that infected a Indiana commercial turkey flock. To stop the spread of the virus, the 29,000 turkeys were shot.
Officials from the government and the poultry industry say they are working together to stop the spread of the virus. However, they warn that the virus strain can be deadly for commercial poultry. If enough birds are infected, prices for chicken, turkey, and eggs could rise.
"It's certainly considered a period high risk now that there has been a confirmed case highly pathogenic avian flu in the commercial poultry sector," stated Dr. Denise Heard. She is a U.S. Poultry & Egg Association vice president of research and a poultry veterinarian. "I am positive that we can handle this situation better, and I have my fingers crossed this will be an isolated incident, but I would hope for best and be ready for the worst."
According to health officials, there have not been any human cases of avian flu in the United States and the disease isn't a public health emergency.
Producers killed 33 million Iowa egg-laying chickens, making them the nation's largest egg producer. 9 million birds were also killed in Minnesota, which is the nation's top turkey producer. There were smaller outbreaks in South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska. Prices for turkey and eggs rose for months due to the disease. Egg prices went up by 61 percent and the price of boneless, skinless turkey breasts rose 75 percent between May 2015 and July 2015.
The outbreaks were called the most costly animal health disaster in U.S. History. They cost the government almost $1 billion to remove infected birds from the environment and pay government indemnity payments for producers.
The current circulating strain is H5N1, which is closely related to the 2015 virus. It circulated for months in Europe, Asia and was discovered in wild birds in Canada just a few weeks back. The virus was also found in commercial flocks in Canada one week before the U.S. case.
Avian influenza is a common strain in wild migrating birds. They are often low-pathogenic and don't cause death. These strains can sometimes get into domestic flocks, where they can mutate to more deadly viruses. The H5N1 virus spreading from wild birds to humans is already extremely pathogenic. It can be deadly right from the beginning, according to Dr. Yuko Sato, a veterinarian and assistant professor at Iowa State University's Department of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine.
The virus has been identified in wild birds in New Hampshire and Delaware by U.S. surveillance teams in the last week in North Carolina, Virginia. Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina. This makes it clear that the virus is widespread in the environment.
It spreads easily through wild bird droppings. The virus can also be transported to commercial flocks by workers on their feet or on equipment. This is why high-level biosecurity protocols have been implemented across the country for commercial operations. They have created new safeguards to protect against deadly bird flu infection, commonly known as HPAI.
Lyndsay Cole, spokeswoman for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said that "With the increased preparatory effort USDA and its partner have put in place since 2015 HPAI outbreak," which prepares us to handle this detection.
The poultry industry is being supported by federal and state officials. They have taken steps to establish an immediate quarantine, which restricts the movement of birds and equipment within the perimeter of an infected barn. This will also prevent them from moving into or out of areas that are more than 6 miles away. Once the perimeter has been established, the virus can be eradicated by killing and exterminating birds at the infected site. Both wild and domestic birds are tested in the quarantine area. The virus is killed at the affected farm, and the virus is tested to confirm its absence.
A biosecurity protocol must be kept on file by producers in order to ensure that they are eligible for government indemnity payments in the event of a disaster. Sato stated that the USDA has created a 14-point biosecurity protocol for producers. It is reviewed by state agricultural agencies every two years and audited annually.
According to Kevin Stiles (executive director of the Iowa Poultry Association, and the Iowa Egg Council), Iowa egg farmers have been working together with federal and state authorities to eradicate the disease in their flocks. Iowa has 49 million chickens.
"IPA maintains open communications with biosecurity experts and offers surveillance testing. He said that he was confident in the ability of our producers to manage their flocks and are prepared for any eventualities