Delaware Avian Influenza Information Center: Public
Avian influenza (AI) is a serious disease concern for poultry producers and animal health officials. While influenza strains in birds, just as in people, vary considerably in severity, some influenza viruses can be devastating to domestic poultry.
Questions and Answers about Avian Influenza in Poultry
What is avian influenza?
Avian influenza, or "bird flu," is a virus that infects domestic poultry, such as chickens, turkey, quail, and geese, and wild birds such as shorebirds and waterfowl. There are no human health concerns from the strains of avian influenza that have been reported in the United States.
Avian influenza is a serious disease concern for poultry producers and animal health officials. While influenza strains in birds, just as in people, vary considerably in severity, some influenza viruses can be devastating to domestic poultry.
How can avian influenza get here?
Generally, we know that avian influenza can be transmitted by wild birds or waterfowl coming south, but there is no way of knowing exactly how the virus was contracted by a specific flock. Our family farmers take steps every day to keep their flocks healthy and safe. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has highly skilled epidemiologists at work tracking possible methods of virus introduction across the country. The virus can also be transmitted on shoes, vehicles or equipment, which is why we are asking everyone with poultry to take the proper precautions and use strict biosecurity protocols.
What are biosecurity steps that can be taken?
Basic biosecurity steps include:
- Limit, monitor and record any movement of people, vehicles or animals on or off your farm.
- Permit only essential workers and vehicles to enter the farm to limit the chances of bringing the virus from an outside source.
- Avoid visiting other poultry farms.
- Disinfect equipment, vehicles, footwear and other items that come in contact with flocks.
- Keep your flock away from wild or migratory birds, especially waterfowl.
- Isolate any ill animals and contact your veterinarian.
Can I get the virus? Are there any human health effects?
Human infection with avian influenza is rare. Most infections occurred after direct or close contact with poultry infected with H5N1 outside the U.S. There is no evidence that this virus can spread easily between people.
The human health risk from avian influenza is generally low. Person-to-person transmission has been extremely rare. Human illness overseas has resulted predominantly from direct contact with sick or dead birds. Frequent hand-washing can prevent the spread of many contagious diseases, including avian influenza.
How has Delaware been preparing for this possibility?
Delaware has a comprehensive response plan that brings together partners from the federal government, surrounding states, other state agencies, the poultry industry, and our universities. The strength and success of our homegrown poultry industry in Delaware and on Delmarva means that everyone here is fully united in fighting this virus if it comes here. We have held several workshops to reach both commercial poultry growers and back-yard flock owners and educate them about preparedness steps, symptoms, and how to report possible diseases. That effort has also included mailings and posters in farm supply stores. Our staff has been working almost full-time since January to revise and fine-tune our plans for such an event. We know how to deal with this, how to control it, and how to eradicate it.
Are vaccines available for poultry flocks?
Vaccines are under testing and review at the federal level. There are vaccines available, but any use of these products must be approved by state and federal agencies.
How do we know that our food is safe?
Consumers should be fully confident that their chicken and eggs are safe to eat if properly prepared. That means cooking poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, and washing preparation surfaces, utensils and hands – just like when your family cooks chicken every day. We can guarantee that no flock moves to processing without being tested for avian influenza.
What is the testing process for detecting avian influenza?
Every commercial flock in Delaware is tested for avian influenza before it heads to processing. Testing is done through collaboration between the poultry companies and the University of Delaware’s Lasher Laboratory. No flock goes to market without passing that testing process. There are no exceptions. Samples that are detected positive from the Lasher Laboratory are sent to the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Iowa for official confirmation.
What are the visible symptoms?
Symptoms of avian influenza in poultry include:
- Sudden death without other clinical signs
- Lack of energy and appetite
- Swelling of the heat, eyelids, comb, wattles and hocks
- Purple discoloration of the wattles, combs and legs
- Nasal discharge
- Coughing or sneezing
- Lack of coordination
- Decreased egg production; soft-shelled or misshapen eggs
- Torticollis / twisted neck
What will be done to control the virus if it comes here?
A control area will be established around an affected farm; there will be little impact to non-farmers who live in the area. Movement of poultry and supply trucks (e.g., feed, hatchery trucks, fuel deliveries) to or from farms will be restricted and subject to permitting. Flocks in the control area will undergo additional testing, carry out biosecurity checklists, and have state-issued permits to move birds.
What happens to birds that have the virus?
All bird flocks on an affected farm must be depopulated under federal and state policy to prevent this virus from spreading. This is an unfortunate but necessary measure when we are dealing with serious disease cases. This process is carried out using approved veterinary protocols for a humane euthanasia. All methods are carried out with guidance from the professional veterinary community and appropriate national organizations.
How are bird carcasses disposed of?
After the flocks are depopulated, the carcasses will be composted using a secure system. For broiler chickens, they will be composted in the poultry house itself. Composting is the method used for normal poultry mortality, though on a smaller scale. Like any composting, this process will raise the heat to 130 degrees Fahrenheit for sufficient time to kill the virus. Once the compost has been sufficiently heated, it can be removed from the house and disposed of in a variety of ways. One common way may be to be spread on farm fields if regulations permit. There should be no concern that the compost will carry the virus. The poultry houses then undergo an extensive and lengthy cleaning, decontamination, and testing process. Only when they are declared virus-free will new birds be permitted back in.
Has Delaware had a case of avian influenza before?
We have dealt successfully with avian influenza before, in 2004 with a case of low-pathogenic avian influenza. Two farms were affected in Delaware and one in Maryland.
What will be the economic impact on poultry farmers if the virus does come to Delaware?
Delaware has more than 670 commercial poultry farms, with up to 50 million chickens in the state at any given time. Our family farms grow more than 210 million broiler chickens each year. Several thousand families depend upon poultry for work in processing and other fields. The direct impact is $2.7 billion, with the total economic contribution estimated at $4.6 billion. We understand there will be concern about the impact on individual family farms and on the sector in general, which is why we are prepared to act quickly and decisively to control its spread and eradicate the virus if it is found in Delaware.
What are the rules for back-yard flock owners?
There are about 900 back yard flocks registered in Delaware as required by state law. Anyone with one chicken or other poultry species must be registered with the Department of Agriculture. The database was instituted about a decade ago; we work to keep it updated and notify new poultry owners as soon as we are aware of them.
Why are the name and location of an affected farm not released?
Our primary goal is to prevent the virus from spreading by maintaining tight controls and using effective biosecurity practices. If Delaware does have a case, we will not disclose the location or identity of the farm to prevent the disease from spreading to other farms with poultry. We do not want to have people visiting or driving by that location and potentially tracking avian influenza virus to another location and spreading it even wider.
Resources and Links
Website: Information on Avian Influenza (CDC)
Website: Avian Flu (flu.gov)
Fact Sheet: Avian Influenza (Delaware Division of Public Health)
Fact Sheet en Espanol: Influenza Aviar (Delaware Divison de Salud Publica)
For Employers: Guidance for Protecting Employees Against Avian Flu (OSHA)
Fact Sheet en Espanol: Influenza Aviar (Delaware Divison de Salud Publica)
Brochure: Proteja a sus aves de la influenza aviar (USDA APHIS)
Website: Informacion sobre la influenza aviar (CDC)
Brochure: Influenza Aviar Preparativos y Respuesta del USDA (USDA APHIS)