What you need to know about the Avian Influenza Outbreak

ORONO — The current risk of spreading the most recent strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) remains high, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

An outbreak earlier this summer in a small, noncommercial group of backyard birds has led the department to recommend the cancellation or postponement of competitions, exhibitions, shows, swaps or other in-person events encouraging the gathering or comingling of domestic fowl or poultry.

In order to get some more information, The American spoke with Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner, a UMaine Extension veterinarian, associate professor and director of the UMaine veterinary diagnostic laboratory.

Can you give us some details on this strain of HPAI that has been detected in the state?

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) was detected in a flock of Maine chickens during February 2022; it was confirmed to be HPAI via submitting samples to our regional National Animal Health Monitoring (NAHM) lab at Cornell, and the National Vet Services Lab (NVSL). My understanding is that the same strain of HPAI has been found here as was found both in our region, and in many areas of the U.S. and Canada this year (H5N1). You can get a really good idea of the general distribution in North America here [https://www.usgs.gov/centers/nwhc/science/distribution-highly-pathogenic-avian-influenza-north-america-20212022].

How does this outbreak compare to previous outbreaks?

Like other HPAI outbreaks internationally, it’s likely primarily due to migrating birds. Like the situation in the U.S. outbreak in 2015, it has affected a lot of commercial flocks, especially in the upper Midwest. In contrast to that outbreak, though, in 2022 we have just as many backyard farms affected as commercial farms. While I am not sure why this is the case, it’s notably different. I think backyard farmers thought they were immune somehow, but now it’s quite clear we are not immune, and need to take this seriously.

Is this a particularly concerning outbreak?

Yes, this is concerning (like every HPAI outbreak, no matter what country) primarily due to the loss of poultry. We have over 40 million poultry dead due to HPAI and eradication efforts for positive flocks. It’s also concerning since HPAI sometimes infects people (not so far in this outbreak, which is great news). Anything that causes loss of backyard poultry has a big effect since we love our small flocks here in Maine!

Any increased risk in the Hancock County area that you know of?

I don’t think we have any positives in Hancock yet, and if people can work on keeping their poultry SEPARATE from wild birds, or places wild birds hang out, I hope we can keep it that way. Wild ducks and geese are considered to be the biggest risks for transmitting HPAI to our domestic birds, but any bird could potentially be a problem, so please keep your poultry protected.

What is most important for people to understand about an outbreak like this?

If there is one important point, it’s the concept of biosecurity. Just as we all kept a bit of distance from each other at the start of the COVID outbreak, we should keep distance between our poultry and wild birds (or areas where they hang out, like ponds and pastures). HPAI can survive for at least weeks in bird manure, and in water where ducks and geese have been.

For more info, please see my avian flu blog on our veterinary diagnostic lab website.

Also, owners, please know that if you see unusual patterns of loss in your birds, you can call the regional HPAI response team if avian flu seems likely (1-866-536-7593). If there are losses but you don’t suspect avian flu, our veterinary diagnostic lab can assist (207-581-3874). Use caution to avoid any transmission of viruses from dead or dying birds: if they are wild birds, notify your regional warden or IFW rather than trying to approach them. If your own birds are found dead, wear disposable gloves and a mask when bagging them for further testing; dispose of those gloves/mask securely, incinerate them if possible. This disease tends to be rapidly fatal in susceptible birds, but you should still please use caution in treating any sick birds to avoid exposing yourself or others to the virus.

Any final thoughts?

There was recently a reported detection of HPAI (confirmed by NVSL) in some dead harbor seals. This isn’t good news, but we will have to wait and see what it means. We also have losses of some wild seabirds. The impact of HPAI on wildlife will be substantial, but if weather and environment are favorable, those that survive may be relatively immune from later HPAI outbreaks. For our domestic birds, the best choice we have for now is to keep the virus away from them.

Zachary Lanning

Zachary Lanning

News reporter Zach Lanning covers news and features in the Ellsworth area. He comes to Ellsworth by way of New Jersey, which he hopes you don't hold against him. Email him at [email protected].

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