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Suffolk County case raises questions about possible spread of avian influenza strain in flocks

Long Island poultry producers are taking precautions to protect their flocks from highly pathogenic avian influenza, also known as HPAI, after the virus cropped up in a backyard flock a few weeks ago.

The Department of Agriculture has indicated that HPAI infections in birds are not an immediate public health concern and no human cases have been detected in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, HPAI “virus strains are extremely infectious, often fatal to chickens, and can spread rapidly from flock-to-flock.” 

The USDA confirmed HPAI among a backyard flock of eight in Suffolk County on Feb. 18. There have been two other confirmations of HPAI in New York backyard and commercial flocks so far in 2022, in Ulster and Dutchess counties. 

“This could be with us for a while and growers need to understand the practices that they need to adapt to protect their birds,” said Rob Carpenter, administrative director for the Long Island Farm Bureau. 

Sick birds should be reported right away to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, via the Division of Animal Industry, at 518-457-3502 or the USDA at 866-536-7593. A federal program “provides indemnity and compensation to producers” to remove animals of concern. 

Warning signs listed by the USDA include a sudden increase in bird deaths without any clinical signs; lethargy and low appetite; fewer and/or thin or misshapen eggs; swelling of the head, eyelids, comb, wattles and hocks; purple discoloration of the wattles, comb and legs; difficulty breathing; coughing, sneezing or a runny nose; stumbling or falling down and diarrhea.

“This is very serious and it’s one thing for Rob Carpenter to have three backyard chickens because he likes a couple of eggs now and then for breakfast. If my three chickens die, not a big deal, I can go buy three more chicks and raise them again,” Mr. Carpenter said. “But when you have a producer that relies on that flock or those eggs or that income, it’s very serious because that depopulation, the cleansing that’s needed, all of that infrastructure is going to be very costly and some of the bigger producers may not easily be able to recover from that.”

Mr. Carpenter said HPAI is highly transmissible in a number of ways, “whether it’s bird to bird, whether it’s wild bird to domestic bird — and I say domestic meaning farm birds — and even to the point where it could be passed by a human handling a bird or having stepped in soils that birds, touching another human and having that human spread it to another flock.”

The USDA depopulated the backyard flock with HPAI found in Suffolk County, Mr. Carpenter said, but advises commercial producers to implement a biosecurity plan for their flocks. Backyard producers should take proper precautions, including quarantining or restraining their birds from running “wild in their yards,” he said. 

“One of the things I’ve seen from producers is to make sure that the birds are indoors and sequestered. Wild waterfowl such as geese and ducks and things like that are carriers of the disease, even if they may not necessarily show symptoms,” Mr. Carpenter said. “A wild bird could come in, eat the feed of domestic poultry, leave and that saliva and bacteria is in the food.”

Suffolk County bird farmers have been alerted to the presence of HPAI and told to implement biosecurity protocols. Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County held a seminar on March 14 on the dangers of HPAI and how to prevent it from spreading. 

Eireann Collins, a panelist from the state Dept. of Agriculture and Markets, emphasized that the disease can pose risks to the economy, environment and food security if precautions are not taken. She also asserted that the disease is not a public health concern.

“We want to eradicate this disease to prevent it from affecting additional birds and hope our producers that are affected get back into business,” she said.

Panelist Gavin Hitchener, director at Cornell University’s duck research laboratory, said he advises against pasture-raised birds. “From a biosecurity standpoint, there’s no good way the birds running around in the open to effectively essentially control that exposure or disease in that system,” he said.

Some preventative measures he suggested include changing shoes and clothing before and after interacting with the birds; minimizing the birds’ exposure to wildlife; frequent cleaning; and avoiding wooden structures, which are porous and can pose a transmission risk.