Is an Avian Flu Outbreak Heading for Pennsylvania?

  • Free range chickens show their stuff during a Farm Crawl in Marion County, Iowa, October 5, 2014. An ongoing outbreak of avian influenza has killed more than 40 million chickens across the Midwest. Photo: Phil Roeder via Flickr

June 19, 2015

Ten-year-old Ammon Hottensmith has been raising turkeys and chickens to bring to the Portage County Fair in Ohio. But he just heard that all poultry events have been canceled this year. The reason? An ongoing outbreak of avian flu that’s snowballed into the worst in the nation’s history.

“Well, I was kind of mad, because I’m taking three poultry projects, and I guess all I have now is a pig,” Ammon says.

It’s the same story for poultry shows in Pennsylvania, Michigan and many other poultry-producing states. But officials say the threat of avian influenza is just too great this year.

“I know it’s disappointing,” says Jim Chakeres of the Ohio Poultry Association. “It was a very difficult decision for the Department of Agriculture to make. Basically any time birds are co-mingled in any location, that provides for an opportunity for diseases to spread.”

Ami Gignac (left) of Breakneck Acres with Ammon Hottensmith, age 10, (second from the left) and other members of the Hottensmith family.

Ami Gignac (left) of Breakneck Acres with Ammon Hottensmith, age 10, (second from the left) and other members of the Hottensmith family. Photo: Julie Grant

Forty-eight million chickens have been killed or culled because of the current flu, costing the industry over $1 billion. Most of the losses have been in Midwestern states. But agriculture officials in Pennsylvania and Ohio, both among the top egg-producing states in the country, are warning the disease is right at our doorstep.

Hon Ip, whose virology lab at the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center was the first to detect these highly pathogenic viruses in the U.S., says he initially got reports last December that wild ducks and geese were dying at a lake in Washington State. The lake wasn’t far from British Columbia, Canada, where there was already confirmed highly pathogenic avian influenza on poultry farms. When Ip’s lab tested the wild birds, the results were positive.

“That was the first indication that the high-path virus that was infecting poultry in Canada was actually exposed to wild birds. And that wild birds may then become a carrier of those viruses.”

Agricultural experts say poultry producers should keep their flocks away from wild birds.

Hearing that hit home for farmer Ami Gignac, who has a flock of 800 chickens and sells meat and eggs at farmers markets.

“With our poultry all being free range we thought, OK, we need to be more aware and conscious of what’s going on on the property. But it’s tricky to manage,” Gignac says.

Avian inluenza cases confirmed by USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories. Graphic: USDA

Avian inluenza cases confirmed by USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories as of June 18, 2015. Graphic: USDA

Free range and backyard flocks may seem like they’re at the greatest risk of catching avian flu from wild birds. But in some states, it’s the huge, industrial farms—the kind with tens of thousands of birds that never get outside the barn—that have been hit the hardest. In contrast, virologist Hon Ip says he is finding relatively few problems with backyard chickens and turkeys, at least in Minnesota.

“With the exception of one backyard flock, I don’t know of any that’s infected in Minnesota,” he says.

Penn State University researchers have tested poultry continuously in Pennsylvania since the last avian flu outbreak in the early 1980s. That one killed 17 million birds.

This week, the USDA released its first report about the current outbreak. It shows that while some farms have gotten flu from outside sources like wild birds, in other cases, it’s likely the virus is spreading from farm to farm.

“What’s been surprising is how it has moved in some farms that have established quite good biosecurity practices,” says Patty Dunn, an avian pathologist at Penn State.

The USDA, as well as ag officials in Pennsylvania and Ohio, are all calling on poultry and egg producers to make sure anyone who enters their farms has clean boots and that all barns and equipment are cleaned thoroughly to prevent the spread of avian flu.