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Highly pathogenic avian influenza confirmed in Jefferson Co. flock

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Wisconsin has confirmed its first case of the highly pathogenic avian influenza on a Jefferson Co. egg laying flock. State health officials say 3 million birds will be destroyed.

A Jefferson County commercial egg laying flock of 3 million hens will be destroyed after health officials confirmed the flock was infected with the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) on Monday.

During a zoom call, officials from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) said that samples from the Wisconsin flock were tested by the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and confirmed by the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa.

Wisconsin State Veterinarian Darlene Konkle said this is Wisconsin’s first confirmed case of HPAI since 2015. The outbreak of the disease seven years ago when nine commercial farms and one backyard flock in Wisconsin were hit by the H5N2 strain of Avian Influenza, leading to the mass euthanasia, or depopulation, of nearly 2 million birds between April and May 2015.

Konkle told reporters that state and federal officials have made significant steps since then to help stem the spread of disease.

"One thing we learned was the need to act as quickly as possible. In this case, the initial notification from the flock's veterinarian and initial testing have gone seamlessly," Konkle said. "That's one thing that helped our response and helped get us on our way much more quickly."

Konkle says DATCP and the DATCP and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are working closely with animal health officials on a joint incident response.

"Our next step will involve depopulating the flock and then moving towards disposal of those birds, our main objective being to prevent the spread of the virus either to other wild birds, or to other domestic birds - either backyard or commercial flocks," Konkle said. "That's why we have to move quickly."

Konkle says officials have procedures in place to prevent any movement or poultry or poultry products on or off of the farm. She noted that the owner of the flock also has other flocks that are on other farms about six miles from the affected premises.

"Right now the birds in those flocks are not showing any clinical signs of the disease but will be monitored and tested in the days and weeks ahead," Konkle said.

As part of existing avian influenza response plans, federal and state partners are working on additional surveillance and testing in areas around the affected flock.  On Tuesday, DATCP has issued a special order immediately banning poultry from any movement to, or participation in, shows, exhibitions, and swap meets held in Jefferson County. The order will remain in effect through May 31, 2022.

"I think something to emphasize here is the tremendous importance of making sure that everybody's practicing biosecurity measures on their own operations and it's also an opportunity to reinforce the benefit of premises identification in helping with response to disease outbreaks," said Ag Secretary Randy Romanski.

In 2015, three Jefferson County egg-laying flocks were decimated by the Avian Influenza, resulting in the depopulation of over 1.6 million birds. Konkle says that the farm currently coping with the disease was not among those businesses.

HPAI viruses are a form of avian influenza that has been found to be highly contagious and often fatal to domestic poultry. It can be spread by contact with infected birds, equipment, or clothing worn by those working with the animals.

Spread of the disease

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) sounded the alarm in January when the highly pathogenic Eurasian H5 avian influenza (HPAI) was confirmed in a wild American wigeon in Colleton County, South Carolina. Eurasian H5 HPAI had not been detected in a wild bird in the United States since 2016. 

HPAI viruses are a form of avian influenza that has been found to be highly contagious and often fatal to domestic poultry. It can be spread by contact with infected birds, equipment, or clothing worn by those working with the animals.

In the past two months, HPAI has been detected in commercial egg-laying, broiler and turkey operations as well as non-commercial backyard flocks, including non-poultry flocks such as waterfowl in 14 states. Producers fear a repeat of a widespread bird flu outbreak in 2015 that killed 50 million birds across 15 states and cost the federal government nearly $1 billion, according to Associated Press.

RELATED: Bird flu cases revive fear of 2015 outbreak

The addition of the Wisconsin flock would bring the number of commercially raised chickens and turkeys culled due to the disease to around 6.7 million, according to Reuters.

Safety concerns

Konkle says that birds from the flock will not enter the food system and that HPAI does not present an immediate public health concern and no human cases of avian influenza have been found in the United States. HPAI also does not pose a food safety risk; properly handling and cooking poultry and eggs to an internal temperature of 165˚F kills the virus.

With Wisconsin being right in the migratory path of hundreds of thousands of birds each year navigating the Mississippi Flyway, Konkle says producers or backyard flock owners should move their birds indoors when possible to prevent contact with wild birds and their droppings.

"The disease not only affects chickens and turkeys but other types of birds that people may raise including waterfowl and peacocks," she said. "We do know that the (Jefferson County flock) reported a higher than normal death loss in the section of the flock that was affected. So it does cause death of the birds after the rapid onset of clinical signs."

Konkle says that animal health officials have not yet identified a point source of the disease into the facility. 

"We will be looking at that or anything else at risk in the surrounding area," she said. "We know its out there, so we're urging everyone to practice the highest level of biosecurity that they can."

What's next

Wisconsin animal health officials will be working with members of the USDA, American Veterinary Medical Association, and other state experts to determine the best method to depopulate the birds humanely, quickly and safely. 

Once the birds are euthanized, Konkle says the birds will have to be disposed in a manner to prevent the spread of the virus.

"The methods we use will determine the length of time it takes before that farm can be back up and running again," Konkle said. "For instance, if we use composting as our disposal method, that compost must reach the appropriate temperature to eliminate the virus. There there is a fallow period in between before they're allowed to reintroduce new birds. So we don't have a specific timeline at this point."

Although the USDA has an indemnity program that reimburses producers for the value of the culled birds, Ron Kean, poultry specialist, UW-Extension and College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, says not all expenses are covered. 

"Unfortunately, this doesn't account for income lost from future eggs and downtime due to the complete decimation of the flock," Kean said, adding that there should be funding available for the clean-up to the operation's facilities.

"Rebuilding can be a very long and drawn-out process. It's not as though you can go out and purchase a pile of chickens to restock your operation," he said. "You have to start from square one with day-old chicks. It takes time to grow them into full-grown producing chickens."

Before birds can be reintroduced to the farm, Kean says there is much follow-up testing that will have to be done to the inspected facility.

Sgt. Parminder Singh and Spc. Lacy Taylor, both Soldiers with the Hartford, Wis.-based 457th Chemical Company, decontaminate a vehicle leaving a poultry farm in Lake Mills, Wis., April 29, 2015. The Wisconsin National Guard that was called to state active duty to assist the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in its response to Avian Flu outbreaks at several sites across the state.

Counting the cost

Since 2015, poultry producers around the country have invested countless dollars into increasing biosecurity measures on their operations including perimeter fencing, new entrances, requiring employees to change clothing before entering or leaving the facility, erecting vehicle wash stations to disinfect vehicles entering and leaving the premises and the purchase of additional chemicals.

Producers, whether they are directly impacted by the disease or not, may also face financial consequences. As word of a confirmed case of avian influenza in a state is made known, many countries will cease all poultry imports from the state where the disease has been identified. Some countries may block poultry products from the entire U.S. 

While Wisconsin isn't necessarily a leading poultry-producing state, in 2021state producers exported more than $448,000 in poultry meat products, $4,000 in live birds, nearly $13,000 in bird eggs (not in shell/yolk, all of which went to Hong Kong, and over $403,000 in bird eggs (in shell), mostly to Hong Kong and Mexico, according to WI DATCP.

The potential loss of these export markets is significant one for some companies.

According to National Agricultural Statistics Service’s January 2022 report, Wisconsin had over 7 million laying hens on hand that produced around 180 million eggs.

About HPAI

HPAI viruses are a form of avian influenza that has been found to be highly contagious and often fatal to domestic poultry. It can be spread by contact with infected birds, equipment, or clothing worn by those working with the animals.

Signs of HPAI in infected birds include:

  • Sudden death without clinical signs
  • Lack of energy or appetite
  • Decrease in egg production; soft, misshapen eggs
  • Purple discoloration of wattles, comb, and legs
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Runny nose, coughing, sneezing
  • Stumbling or falling down
  • Diarrhea

For more information on avian influenza viruses in wild birds, or for information on how and when to report sick or dead wild birds, visit the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife diseases webpage

Anyone with questions about how avian flu affects humans can find information at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services website

To report increased mortality or signs of illness among domestic birds, contact DATCP at (608) 224-4872 (business hours) or (800) 943-0003 (after hours and weekends).

Amber Burke of the Wisconsin State Farmer also contributed to this report