Virginia has so far eluded widespread outbreaks of a highly pathogenic strain of avian flu, but the state veterinarian cautions poultry owners that they’re “not out of the woods yet.”
State vet Charles Broaddus urged poultry owners “to continue implementing high biosecurity measures as an everyday practice” in a June 10 letter to industry members, saying that such steps “are in a large part responsible” for the state’s avoidance of widespread outbreaks this year.
To date, Virginia’s only detection of the current strain of avian flu, known as the Eurasian H5 type, occurred in one flock of chickens and turkeys in Fauquier in February.
“That was our one and only one in Virginia,” said Broaddus.
Since January, according to data from the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the spread of highly pathogenic avian flu has led to the deaths of more than 40 million birds in 36 states. The most recent detections have occurred in Washington state, Utah, Colorado, Indiana, Oregon and Georgia.
Most of the deaths are due to culling: when HPAI is detected in a flock, all of the birds are killed to prevent the highly transmissible virus from spreading. APHIS data record that 90 backyard birds were affected in the Fauquier outbreak.
“No commercial flocks in Virginia have been infected, and so we have not had to depopulate any,” said Hobey Bauhan, executive director of industry group Virginia Poultry Federation.
Experts say case numbers typically decline in the summertime because the virus has trouble surviving in warmer temperatures.
However, Broaddus said those declines don’t mean that the current strain of avian flu has been eradicated.
“The general expectation amongst national epidemiologists and experts that track this is that we will see a resurgence of avian influenza in the fall,” he said.
In his June 10 letter, the state veterinarian also cautioned that a recent detection of the virus in a Georgia flock occurred when “temperatures had recently been in the 90s.”
“So while higher temperatures do reduce the chances of [avian influenza] in the environment, they are not eliminated (and I am reminded that our last detection of AI in commercial poultry in Virginia, which was in a Mt. Jackson turkey flock in 2007, was in the month of June,” he wrote.
Avian flu is typically spread by the feces of wild waterfowl, many of whom migrate over Virginia. While waterfowl can carry the virus without showing symptoms, it causes high mortality among domestic fowl like chickens and turkeys.
The severe impacts and high transmissibility of avian flu have caused many poultry producers across the state to adopt strict measures to reduce its spread, including limiting visitors to poultry houses and require disinfection of shoes and tires before entering properties with flocks.
“We know it is still circulating in wild bird populations, so it’s important that anyone involved in the poultry industry … continue to practice biosecurity,” said Bauhan. “And that includes backyard flock owners as well.”
Virginia also operates a Poultry Disease Task Force, which was formed after the last major avian flu outbreak in the state, in 2002. That episode led to the deaths of more than 4.7 million turkeys and chickens.
Today, Virginia’s poultry industry is concentrated in the Shenandoah Valley, which has roughly 550 chicken farms and 250 turkey farms, and the Eastern Shore. The state ranked sixth in the US for turkey production and 10th for broiler chicken production in 2020, and broilers were Virginia’s top agricultural commodity that year.