PROVIDENCE, RI — The Department of Environmental Management is reminding fowl owners about biosecurity measures to protect the animals from highly pathogenic avian flu – influenza (HPAI) recently found in a noncommercial backyard flock (non-poultry) in Newport County.
This is the first domestic detection of HPAI in Rhode Island, DEM reported. HPAI has been confirmed in more than 40 states, affecting nearly 50 million domestic birds. Last summer, DEM advised the public that HPAI had been found in waterbirds such as gulls and that its crossover to domestic birds appeared inevitable.
On Friday, the DEM Division of Agriculture and Forest Environment euthanized the small, mixed flock consisting of domestic chickens, ducks, and turkeys, which had unrestricted access to wild waterfowl, which carry HPAI and other diseases and can spread them to domestic birds.
Rhode Island, situated on the Atlantic flyway, a major north-south migratory bird route, is at risk, more so because of the virus’s prevalence in wild waterfowl with many species now starting their annual southern migration.
The HPAI avian flu outbreak is unprecedented with respect to “viral load,” – how much a virus is prevalent in the environment, the DEM said in its statement. NOAA Fisheries has confirmed HPAI linked to a recent increase in seal deaths in Maine. A bottlenose dolphin found dead in Florida in September was infected with HPAI, making it the first cetacean to be found with the virus in the United States and only the second known case in the world, according to University of Florida Health. Avian flu infections in these species are remarkably rare.
Although HPAI can infect people, it presents a low public health risk, with person-to-person spread occurring very rarely, mainly in family clusters. Also, no sustained transmission has been noted, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Avian influenza viruses respond to standard antiviral drugs.
Quarantine of the affected premises was placed immediately upon suspicion of the disease, and it will remain in effect for a minimum of 120 days after the depopulation of susceptible domestic poultry. This quarantine period will ensure the virus is eliminated from the environment before susceptible species of domestic poultry can be reintroduced.
HPAI infection brings a grim prognosis, with domestic poultry mortality rates exceeding 90 percent. Without control of the spread by humanely killing infected birds, all poultry could be wiped out across the state. Depopulating infected birds, which DEM does by using a method of euthanasia approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association, limits how much they suffer from the infection and removes them as a source of infection for other birds.
“I’m just back from the annual United States Animal Health Association meeting where HPAI understandably was the major topic of discussion,” said State Veterinarian Scott Marshall, DVM, who is leading the state’s HPAI response. “We now know that the current outbreak is geographically the largest one ever experienced in the United States, is very unusual in that it didn’t end over the summer like all previous outbreaks, and unlike the 2015-2016 outbreak, appears mostly to be spreading by wild bird-to-domestic bird contact versus laterally between poultry operations.”
This is why Dr. Marshall and DEM Agriculture officials continue to stress the need for biosecurity measures in their outreach to poultry owners across Rhode Island. Biosecurity involves basic but essential practices for poultry owners such as restricting access to and keeping people away from their birds, keeping their birds separated from all wild birds, particularly migratory waterfowl, keeping cages, coops, and clothes clean and disinfected; properly disposing of dead birds, not sharing equipment with other poultry producers or farmers, knowing the warning signs of infectious diseases, and reporting sick birds or unusual bird deaths to DEM.
“All poultry owners need to have a biosecurity plan in place and implement that plan,” Dr. Marshall said. “It has been well documented that most of the noncommercial flocks that have been infected have had poor or nonexistent biosecurity practices in place, and most commercial flocks that were infected had a written biosecurity plan, but there were breaks in the practices. I strongly encourage all poultry owners, if you haven’t already, to develop a written plan and to follow it.”
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