State officials stress biosecurity measures

As the H5N2 strain of avian influenza wreaks havoc in the Midwest, officials and experts in Virginia’s poultry industry are on high alert and bracing for the worst.

Elaine Lidholm, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, noted that this strain is highly infectious and can affect an entire flock from only one particle containing the virus.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Veterinary Services, the virus has affected over 47 million birds so far.

Although no cases have been reported in Virginia, officials like Lidholm and Corey Childs, livestock specialist with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, are urging producers to practice strict biosecurity.

Such biosecurity measures include reporting sick birds and having separate shoes and clothes for the farm or poultry house. A full list of recommended practices can be found on the department’s website: http://1.usa.gov/1F9uksK.

Childs noted, as many in the industry have, that both backyard and commercial producers’ poultry are at risk of being infected.

As of June 10, the number of reported cases since Dec. 19 is 222, of which 203 cases were reported by large commercial operations. Only 19 of the cases – or 8.5 percent – were reported from backyard flocks.

Mike Persia, assistant professor of animal and poultry science at Virginia Tech and poultry specialist with the Virginia Cooperative extension, said the discrepancy in cases could be a matter of reporting.

“Some of it comes down to reporting,” Persia said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there is not under-reporting in backyard flocks.”

Jordan Green raises pastured poultry in a free ranging or backyard manner with his wife Laura at J & L Green Farm in Edinburg.

In a June 4 blog post on the farm’s website (http://bit.ly/1Gvp6yQ), Green stated that there might be a larger problem or question pertaining to large-scale commercial farming when it comes to livestock disease.

One problem with a larger-scale, centralized farming system, Green stated, is that it suppresses an animal’s immune system to the point where the animal cannot fight highly virulent infections.

Any operation with an infected bird has to depopulate its poultry flock. Lidholm noted that industry experts have explored the question of immunity with avian flu.

“I don’t believe that anyone has any significant differences in the immune systems of poultry in confined versus backyard flocks,” she added.

Virginia has already experienced a major outbreak of a different strain of avian flu. In 2002, the virus cost the poultry industry about 4.75 million birds, according to the department.

During this time, Green was working at a farm in Staunton that housed thousands of free-ranging chickens for meat and egg products.

“They had avian flu drop in poultry houses all around them, and not one of their birds was touched,” Green said.

Childs stressed that both commercial and backyard producers should watch the spread of the virus through the country’s flyways as well as practicing strict biosecurity.

“Everybody needs to go back through and re-inspect and reevaluate their biosecurity protocols,” Childs said.

Industry experts are hoping, with higher summer temperatures on the way, that the spread of the H5N2 strain of avian flu will taper off.

Experts such as Childs have noted that the virus is primarily spread through migratory species such as waterfowl. Many of those species migrate to southern states like Virginia during the autumn months.

Persia said the virus does not survive long outside of the host in cold, wet conditions.

“That’s probably why we see it more endemic in the northern Midwest right now,” he said.

Lidholm warned the next point of concern is in late-September and early-October.  She said that is when migratory birds return to the south, along with cooler temperatures.

“Just because we haven’t seen it yet, doesn’t mean that we are relaxing our guard,” Lidholm said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com