We’ve heard about avian influenza (AI) for a number of years now. Our television screens were filled with people on the other side of the world walking down the street with surgical masks covering their mouth and nose.
In the past year, AI wreaked havoc in the Midwestern poultry industries, leading to an increase in meat and egg prices. Unfortunately, the virus might be headed our way, warns University of Georgia poultry specialists, as the temperatures cool and the annual fall migration of wild birds progresses.
The AI virus found in the U.S. is not a zoonotic disease like the one in Asia, meaning, this particular strain will not spread from animals to humans.
Interestingly, waterfowl can carry the virus in their intestinal tract while showing no symptoms. It is the gallinaceous group, such as our gamebirds and ground-living birds, that will suffer the effects. The virus spreads rapidly, has a high death rate and is fatal in poultry.
In the United States, AI first showed up on the West Coast in a backyard flock. It has since moved into some commercial production operations and reportedly has been spread to 15 states with the movement of domestic and migratory birds. It is up to both commercial producers, small producers and those of us with only a few backyard chickens to be cognizant of the potential threat and know how best to respond.
If you have ever had backyard chickens, you are probably painfully aware of all of the problems that can come your way. Chickens can meet their demise by large predators such as neighborhood dogs and owls, or microorganisms, such as bacteria and other parasites.
While the symptoms of avian influenza also can be indicative of other problems, these are some important indicators to watch for:
Sudden death, particularly of more than 10 percent of the flock, for no obvious reason.
Swollen head, face, wattle and hocks.
Purple discoloration of combs, wattle or legs.
Lack of energy and appetite.
Nasal discharge, coughing and sneezing.
Stumbling, lack of coordination.
Soft, thin-shelled or misshapen eggs.
In instances where a bird is sick for more than a week, is the sick individual in a flock of healthy birds, or recovers from the sickness, more than likely you are not dealing with AI. If there is ever doubt, it is better to err on the side of caution. Contact your local County Extension office if you suspect avian influenza in your flock.
There are no acceptable or practical treatments for avian influenza. Biosecurity is the key to preventing the spread of the virus for both small- and large-scale producers. Take practical steps to prevent your flock’s contact with water fowl and wild birds.
Prevent the movement of rodents into housing areas. Routinely clean and sanitize coops. Wear designated clothes and shoes for entering the coop and working with your flock. Limit the interaction your poultry has with other domestic animals and wildlife. Even hunters can help by dressing birds in the field when possible and double bagging feathers, gloves and other supplies for disposal.
Let me again emphasize a few important points. The current strain of avian influenza present in the U.S. does not pose a health hazard to humans. Meat and egg products are still safe to eat. If an outbreak occurs in Georgia, the most likely cause will be migratory birds. Biosecurity will prevent further spread of the disease for both small and large producers. And, finally, if you suspect an outbreak of avian influenza, contact your local County Extension office.
For more information, visit wwwextension.uga.edu/topics/poultry/avian-flu/ or search for ‘a”vian influenza” at www.usda.gov.
Contact Karol Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.