Avian flu is placing a huge strain on Lancaster County poultry farms. Vigilance is imperative. [editorial] | Our Opinion



“A highly contagious and deadly strain of avian influenza was confirmed on a sixth Lancaster County poultry operation on Thursday, requiring 18,000 birds to be destroyed in hopes of curtailing the virus’s spread,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Sean Sauro reported. “The farm’s exact location within the county was not revealed by officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The infected property was identified as a facility producing ‘commercial broiler breeder pullets’ — young birds that would later be grown for meat. … Across all six commercial poultry properties, 3,825,800 birds — a combination of egg layers, meat birds and pullets — have died as a result of the infection or, more likely, were depopulated, a term used to describe the quick euthanization of birds in a flock.” Infected wild waterfowl migrating from Europe are believed to be the source of this highly pathogenic strain of avian flu.

The scale of this disaster for Pennsylvania’s $7.1 billion poultry industry is hard to fathom. And unfortunately, Lancaster County, with its 1,600 poultry farms, is its epicenter.

As Sauro reported, “Virus cases on local farms are part of a much larger outbreak that began in the United States in December. … About 35.52 million birds have died or been destroyed nationwide.

“So far, all confirmed cases of avian influenza at commercial poultry farms in Pennsylvania have been at farms in Lancaster County.”

The one piece of good news: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the “spread of bird flu viruses from one infected person to a close contact is very rare, and when it has happened, it has only spread to a few people.”

The CDC reported Thursday the first case of a human infected with the new strain of bird flu — in Colorado — but said the infected person’s only symptom was fatigue and the risk to the general public is low.

Given what humans have been through in the past couple of years with COVID-19, this is a huge relief.

But we feel for the poultry farmers in the county who either are dealing with the bird flu’s spread, or watching nervously to see if their flocks will be afflicted.

Regulators have put scores of county farms in avian flu quarantine zones — a necessary precaution but an unnerving one.

As Sauro explained last week, “Control zones, stretching for 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) in every direction from an affected farm, have been established by state and federal agriculture officials. In those zones the transportation of poultry and related products is restricted (requiring permits), and flocks are subjected to far greater scrutiny,” including stricter testing requirements.

Sauro also reported that since the start of the outbreak, “experts have encouraged farmers and backyard poultry growers to increase biosecurity measures. They include limiting nonessential access to farms; regularly cleaning farm-related clothing and equipment; not sharing equipment with other farms; and stepped up sanitizing of farm vehicles.”

We trust that farmers are following these measures, given the financial stakes. We hope owners of backyard chicken coops are, too.

Paul Patterson, Penn State emeritus professor of poultry science, told Sauro that most farmers have written biosecurity plans, in order to qualify for government indemnity funding that would cover some of their losses should avian influenza wipe out their flocks.

Don Ranck, vice president of the Lancaster County Farm Bureau, told Sauro that this is true for farms of all types, including those within Amish and other Plain-sect communities.

This, too, is a relief.

For those of us who prefer not to dwell on how the food we buy at the supermarket is produced, the details of flock depopulation can be unpleasant.

Carbon dioxide gas or firefighting foam often are used to suffocate the animals, according to Sauro’s reporting.

It sounds harsh, Penn State Extension poultry expert Gregory Martin told Sauro, but it’s considered more humane than letting the birds suffer and potentially spread an illness that “basically strangles them to death slowly.”

For farmers, depopulating a flock is only the start of the ordeal. It’s followed, Sauro explained, by “a period of mandatory inaction … as farms are thoroughly cleaned. Regulators must give their approval before regular farming can resume, a process likely to take weeks if not months.”

Patterson told Sauro that farmers should expect additional challenges, such as reduced availability of chicks and higher feed prices because of related supply chain disruptions. It can take a couple of years for things to get back to normal.

Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding has said that state officials have prepared for this crisis.

We hope their preparation will suffice to get the state’s poultry farmers through it, and we hope state officials will be more transparent in dealing with this crisis than they have been in dealing with COVID-19.

We understand the strict need to keep people away from affected farms. Still, we were taken aback when, as Sauro reported, state officials said they will not give exact addresses for virus-positive farms because they do not want to draw unwanted attention to the sites, lest this lead to further spread of the virus. Do you know of anyone who would go to an affected farm out of mere curiosity? Because we do not.

We also were struck by a comment from Andrew Di Salvo, a wildlife veterinarian with the state Game Commission, who said wildlife health surveillance is not uniform, making it much more difficult to detect sick birds in remote areas. “It is very much biased to where people live as they often contact us with reports of sick/dead wildlife,” Di Salvo said.

It would seem that now is the time to more uniformly conduct surveillance across the state. In the meantime, commission officials ask people who encounter sick or dead wild birds to report them at 610-926-3136, and we encourage people to do this.

We were heartened by Sauro’s reporting about state employees checking sellers at animal auctions to make sure their birds weren’t raised inside control zones surrounding virus-positive farms — though we’re unsure of the wisdom of continuing to hold live-bird auctions in these circumstances.

Nevertheless, we urge state officials to maintain this level of vigilance.

And we urge poultry farmers to heed Patterson’s advice to act quickly if they detect an increase in mortality in their flocks, or if their birds exhibit avian flu symptoms.

“If you suspect something, you start bleeding birds,” Patterson said. As Sauro noted, that’s the practice of “taking blood samples and sending them to a state lab for testing.”

The last bird flu outbreak to hit Pennsylvania was from 1983 to 1984, Lancaster Farming reported.

During that outbreak, some 17 million birds were depopulated.

“If we can stay way below 17 (million), it’ll be a wonderful accomplishment,” Kevin Brightbill, Pennsylvania’s state veterinarian, told that LNP Media Group publication.

Here’s hoping.