Virulent avian flu now in our region
May 12, 2022
An outbreak of avian flu has been affecting poultry in North America since sometime last fall or early winter, but it wasn’t until the first week of May that it began to show up a little closer to home, in backyard flocks in Pacific County, in Linn County, Ore., and now in Spokane County.
H5N1 is a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus, Bryan Richards, the Emerging Disease Coordinator for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) National Wildlife Health Center said, explaining that highly pathogenic refers to the virus’ ability to cause disease and death.
Over 35 million poultry have been affected and depopulated in the United States since the disease arrived on the east coast last year.
During a prior outbreak in 2014-2015, 50 million commercial poultry were culled in the US, resulting in economic losses of more than $3 billion.
“It was a pretty big deal for the economy,” Richards said. “The price of eggs, the price of poultry definitely increased in 2015, just like it has now."
After it showed up on the east coast last fall, the virus spread south and then west before heading north, Richards said, where a lot of “mortality events” are occurring in Canada right now.
“This particular virus is a descendent of what has been going on in Europe the last couple years,” Richards said. “The virus was transmitted from Europe by migratory birds. Whether it was waterfowl or another kind of migratory bird is an open question. We won’t really know that.”
Because the virus has been found in the region, backyard flocks in Wahkiakum County are considered to be at an elevated risk, and owners are being advised to take extra precautions.
The abundance of waterfowl along the Columbia River increases the risk for backyard flocks as well.
“Is there a chance that some of your birds could be sharing time and space with some of those waterfowl?” Richards asked.
Richards suggests that owners consider keeping their poultry inside.
“The virus itself is transported primarily by wild birds, water fowl,” Richards said. “If they are infected they could be shedding virus and the way they shed virus is in their feces. They are in the water all the time, and the ducks in the water are constantly sampling water as well. We call it a fecal-oral transmission.”
While backyard chickens may not be part of that environment, there is still potential for the virus to be deposited where the chickens are.
Humans can put the poultry at risk too, Richards said. Someone working or playing in an area around wetlands risks bringing infectious materials back home on boots, clothing, or on the body.
It can be managed by good hygiene, Richards said. Decontaminate your boots before arriving home. Consider changing your clothes before you go home. Wash your clothes as soon as you get home. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
“Think of yourself as potential carrier of the virus,” he said. “You want to do everything you can to clean yourself before you go into the chicken house or visit the hens outside or even give them a snack. It doesn’t take much virus at all to cause sickness or death in poultry, that’s why they call it highly pathogenic.”
“Chickens die quickly from this infection,” Richards said. “There isn’t much you can do. There won’t be any survivors.”
The Department of Agriculture should be contacted immediately, he advised. They will humanely euthanize the remaining flock to keep the virus from going anywhere else.
Afterwards, everything has to be decontaminated; the entire henhouse cleaned inside and out, followed by a fallow period.
“It’s a good protocol.” Richards said. “The whole idea is to neutralize any remaining virus in that situation. That fallow period, the last thing you want to do is put new birds in there the week after. This virus can persist in the environment for months, depending on temperature and moisture conditions. It sounds horrible, it’s obviously going to be horrible if your particular backyard flock is infected. It will be rough thing to take, but it’s the right response.”
There are many resources for backyard flock owners, Richards said, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Defend the Flock program. He also recommends checking for information from the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
Two links to informative information are:
Whether it’s a backyard flock or a lone wild bird, Richards recommends that people report any mortality.
“When the public notices dead critters, primarily waterfowl or raptors, they should pick up the phone or get on the internet and report them to a state natural resource agency,” he said. “We can collect carcasses and submit them to diagnostic labs.”