State continues to brace for bird flu

As autumn draws closer, Virginia’s agriculture officials are gearing up to safeguard the state’s poultry population against the possible spread of the H5N2 strain of avian flu.

On Tuesday, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services posted a picture on Twitter stating it had updated the foaming unit machine that is used for depopulation of poultry flocks.

Dr. Charles Broaddus, program manager with the department’s office of veterinary services, explained that part of the upgrade was to ensure that the equipment is properly disinfected if and when it is used on a poultry farm.

This upgrade includes a steam washer and is another way that the department would look to prevent the possible spread of the virus – in the event that a flock has to be depopulated.

“It’s basically a high-pressure washer that heats the water up to very high temperature,” Broaddus noted. “We cleaned the foaming unit with that as we got back from Minnesota.”

Broaddus said that they spent two weeks in Minnesota during the height of the spring outbreak, and worked on a total of eight farms in that period of time.

This experience, Broaddus added, gave the department a chance to test its equipment in a “heavy and direct manner on infected flocks.” He said the department depopulated turkey flocks ranging in sizes up to 100,000 birds.

Foaming units like the one Virginia operates have been the primary method through which poultry flocks have been depopulated. Once the foam is dispersed into the house, Broaddus noted that it takes only a couple of minutes for it to kill the birds.

Since the last reported case of the virus in Iowa on June 17, the virus’ violent spread appears to have halted for now.

Earlier this week, U.S. Departrment of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he is “not ready” to say that the outbreak of the H5N2 strain of avian flu is over just yet.

The concern Broaddus and poultry producers have is that waterfowl species migrating south could carry the disease into areas in and around Virginia.

Broaddus said the state’s response plan would be initiated as soon as the first detected case of the virus is confirmed by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Part of this response would include increased testing and surveillance of farms within a radius of 10 kilometers — or about 6 miles — of any confirmed case of the virus, Broaddus explained.

On July 10, state officials met to discuss the state’s plan for avian flu. Broaddus said this meeting was partly to coordinate how different groups would respond in the event that the strain spreads to the commonwealth.

Part of these conversations, Broaddus noted, has been to determine which agency would handle depopulation – since the poultry industry has foaming units as well.

“The ultimate responsibility is shared,” Broaddus explained. “The owners of the bird typically are the ones that carry out the depopulation in a lot of cases.”

Broaddus added, “When they can’t or don’t have the ability to do so, that’s when we come in.”

For the time being, the state is monitoring for the disease, stressing biosecurity and closely watching migration of waterfowl.

“Any time when the birds start migrating south after Sept. 1 is really when we’re thinking that we may see it,” Broaddus said, adding that that the chance of exposure will increase in October and November.

“One of the biggest things that we can do on a routine basis is do a lot of surveillance of the disease,” he said.

Broaddus explained that commercial poultry tests its flocks for the virus before the birds are transported “for any reason, including slaughter.”

Even then, Broaddus said testing results for the virus can be returned after one or more birds begin exhibiting symptoms that may or may not be the H5N2 virus.

“By the time birds are sick enough to be noticed, they have been infected for several days,” Broaddus added.

From there, Broaddus said the virus could spread possibly to other areas or poultry operations if there is a lack of good biosecurity practices in place.

“That’s the reason why we emphasize biosecurity so much, even right now,” he said. “A lot of times you don’t know you have the disease until it’s too late.”

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