Duck, duck, flu.
It might sound like a kid’s game, but to people who deal with farmers and fowl, it’s no joke.
On Monday, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture issued a warning. Two years after highly pathogenic avian flu left farmers and the poultry industry in egg-producing states scrambling to save their flocks, a new case was identified.
This time it was a wild mallard duck in Alaska.
Alaska? So what’s the big deal? That’s like 3,000 miles as the crow flies.
And that’s where you hit your problem. Crows do fly. More importantly, so do ducks.
“We’re entering the season when migratory birds are leaving their summer homes and traveling south along one of several flyways across the United States,” said Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding. “We’ve found HPAI in North America this fall, so it’s possible that the disease could be carried over Pennsylvania. If that happens, having good biosecurity measures in place will go a long way to ensuring the safety of our poultry flocks.”
Pennsylvania was spared from the billion-dollar impact of the 2014-2015 outbreak that killed more than 50 million birds in 21 states. It was one of the largest egg-producing states not hit by the disease, something that many attributed to the precautions the state urged, including shutting down poultry exhibitions at county fairs across the commonwealth last summer.
But Penn State avian pathologist Eva Wallner-Pendleton says it’s important for people to take the new threat seriously and not relax those safety measures.
“This is kind of a wake-up call that this virus didn’t necessarily go away and it’s in our migratory birds,” she said. “The migratory birds are starting to move already. We just have to be careful. We know that virus is out there.”
The warnings aren’t just for farmers and industrial operations. The popularity of small home flocks makes backyards a possible risk, too.
“In the end of 2014, the initial cases were mostly in small flocks,” Wallner-Pendleton said.
In fact, 21 backyard flocks were hit, one for every 10 commercial operations.
Isolating poultry from wild birds is the big key to preventing the disease. The Department of Ag says wild birds show no symptoms of illness, just carrying the disease.
Wallner-Pendleton said it is then easily transmitted almost invisibly to farms or homes.
Infected wild birds can bring the disease to a pond or stream, or the grass where they might walk nearby. Anyone walking in those areas can transmit the disease, encountered through water or bird droppings, on their shoes and take it back to their barn or coop.
The state recommends vigilant biosecurity precautions, including changing clothes and shoes and washing hands.
Wallner-Pendleton also recommends paying close attention to the behavior of domesticated birds.
“In the Midwest, birds just got very, very quiet, and stopped eating and drinking. It was a matter of a half a day from noticing symptoms until they died,” she said.
But viruses are also temperamental.
“This virus is always changing. If it comes back, it may not look the same,” said Wallner-Pendleton.
HPAI isn’t a disease that affects humans, other than in their wallet. In the previous outbreak, the disease stayed contained to the bird population, and the hit to the egg and poultry industries wasn’t because meat or eggs were tainted but because of the millions of dead birds that left a shortage in some places.