UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The ongoing detection of highly pathogenic avian influenza in wild birds and domestic flocks in several Eastern and Midwestern states is prompting urgent calls from Penn State poultry experts for flock owners — and others who may come into proximity to flocks — to step up their biosecurity practices.
At risk is Pennsylvania’s large poultry industry, the state’s second largest agricultural sector with production valued at more than $1 billion annually. Pennsylvania is ranked fourth among states in egg production, and Lancaster County is among the top four counties nationally in sales of poultry and eggs.
As of Feb. 28, the Eurasian H5N1 strain of avian flu had been confirmed in commercial poultry flocks in Delaware, Kentucky and Indiana; in small backyard or hobby flocks in Michigan, Virginia, Maine and New York; and in about 250 wild waterfowl in nine Eastern states that, like Pennsylvania, are part of the Atlantic flyway for migratory birds.
Highly pathogenic avian influenza, often abbreviated as HPAI, is a devastating disease that kills most poultry that become infected. The natural reservoir for all avian flu viruses, including the HPAI virus of current concern, is migratory waterfowl, which often do not develop symptoms.
A 2014-15 outbreak of HPAI in the Midwest killed more than 50 million birds on commercial poultry farms, causing estimated losses of more than $1 billion. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture estimates that a major HPAI outbreak in the Keystone State could have a total economic impact of $13 billion, including a loss of jobs and wages.
“No confirmed cases of this highly pathogenic H5N1 virus have been reported in Pennsylvania to date,” said Gregory Martin, Penn State Extension poultry educator based in Lancaster County. “But with cases in surrounding states and in migratory birds traveling the Atlantic flyway, we should assume that the virus is present in our state.”
That means that all flock owners — whether they have two birds or 2 million — should have biosecurity precautions in place, according to John Boney, assistant professor of poultry science and Vernon E. Norris Faculty Fellow of Poultry Nutrition in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
“Now is the time to revisit your biosecurity plan,” said Boney, who serves as leader of Penn State Extension’s poultry team. “If you don’t have a biosecurity plan, it’s never too late to start one. Preventing the introduction and spread of this devastating disease is essential.”
The team advises flock owners and managers to review and enhance their biosecurity plans, while following these practices immediately:
— Keep your poultry away from other birds.
— Immediately clean up feed spills to avoid attracting wild birds on your premises.
— Limit visitors to only those essential for business. Make sure all visitors follow your biosecurity plan.
— Wear dedicated footwear and clothing while servicing your poultry to minimize the potential spread of the virus.
— Sanitize boots, hands and tools before entering your flock premises.
While Pennsylvania poultry owners prepare for a potential HPAI outbreak, Penn State’s Animal Diagnostic Laboratory remains vigilant in monitoring for the disease. Rapid detection and diagnosis are critical for stopping the virus’s spread.
Part of the three-lab Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System, the Penn State diagnostic lab in 2021 performed more than 90,000 tests for avian flu, a 20% increase over pre-COVID numbers. Patricia Dunn, clinical professor in veterinary and biomedical sciences and an avian pathologist in the lab, estimates that over her Penn State career, about 20% of her duties have been related to avian flu surveillance.
“Luckily, most of the time results are negative, but that can change on a dime,” she said. “Risk is quite high right now.”
Dunn noted that the lab routinely tests samples and birds every day because of Pennsylvania’s robust avian influenza surveillance programs.
“For example, all of our diagnostic cases of sick poultry, other than very young birds, are tested for avian flu, even if that is not high on our differential diagnoses list given the history and clinical signs in the case,” she said. “Even cases presenting with mild egg production drops or slight decreases in feed and water consumption, but no overt illness, are tested for avian influenza.
“Because low-pathogenic avian flu infections can present like many other diseases, we don’t want to miss these, either,” she explained. “Some of those strains may mutate to HPAI if allowed to circulate in poultry undetected.”
Dunn said the Penn State lab has not investigated any suspected cases of HPAI in the state this year, “but we continue to be on the lookout.”
The extension poultry team recommends that people who are keeping birds and notice a large amount of unexplained sickness in their flock should call the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture at 717-772-2852 (option 1) for help.
More information on avian influenza, its symptoms in poultry, biosecurity recommendations and instructions for reporting suspected cases is available on the Penn State Extension website at https://extension.psu.edu/
–Chuck Gill, Penn State University