Georgia poised to combat bird flu as fall migrations begin

Highly pathogenic avian influenza might fly down to Georgia this fall, but state officials say they have taken measures to make sure the disease doesn’t damage Georgia’s huge poultry industry.

The virus hasn’t yet mutated to a form that’s a threat to humans, but is almost always fatal to poultry.

Authorities euthanized an estimated 48 million chickens and turkeys to stem outbreaks of the new flu strain in Minnesota, Iowa and other states earlier this year. The total cost adds up so far to nearly $1 billion, said Georgia State Veterinarian Robert Cobb.

It was the largest animal disease emergency in the history of the United States, according to federal veterinary authorities.

And now the migratory waterfowl, which are the natural reservoirs of the virus, are beginning to head south in their fall migrations.

“The virus is common and normal in wild waterfowl,” Cobb said. “It doesn’t make them sick.”

But to birds such as turkeys, quail and chickens, it’s 80 to 100 percent fatal, he said.

The wild geese and ducks have congregated up north in their natural cycle, giving the viruses they carry a chance to spread and change. Some infected birds will likely be winging their way through Georgia and stopping along the way; one of the four major North American migratory bird flyways passes through Georgia.

But preparation and some factors unique to Georgia should minimize any impact to the Georgia poultry industry, which is concentrated in counties around Athens. Franklin, Banks, Madison and Jackson counties are among the top 10 poultry and egg-producing counties in the state, and Georgia, where production is measured in billions of tons, is the top poultry-producing state in the United States.

Measured in dollars, about half of the state’s agricultural output is poultry.

Georgia has never had an outbreak of HPAI, but authorities are taking the threat very seriously because so much is at stake – billions of dollars and thousands of jobs, he said.

“It is considered nationally as critical infrastructure,” Cobb said.

To get ready, the state Department of Agriculture has been waging a campaign to get Georgia poultry producers to practice better biosecurity.

“We can’t keep it out of the world,” he said.

But taking biosecurity measures to keep bird flu out of chicken houses should protect flocks. Those measures include keeping visitors out, and making sure those who work with flocks wear clean clothes and decontaminated shoes.

In the beginning of this spring and summer’s bird flu outbreak, backyard flocks got the disease from wild birds, scientists believe. But after that, almost all the spread was done inadvertently by humans carrying the virus on equipment, clothing or shoes from one chicken or turkey farm to another. The U.S. Department of Agriculture even recommends disinfecting truck tires when a driver has been near others’ birds or other bird owners.

If a Georgia farm were to be infected, authorities would take steps within hours to euthanize birds at an infected farm, as humanely as possible, Cobb said.

With sometimes tens of thousands of birds in a single house, they’d probably kill them by turning the fans in the house off and turning the heat up, which would kill the birds in a matter of minutes. Other possible methods would utilize foam or carbon dioxide, Cobb said.

Authorities would also draw imaginary circles around an infected area and restrict movement for poultry and those who work with them.

Agriculture officials have developed response plans for a possible crisis. Agencies such as the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and even the National Guard could deploy.

The goal is to stamp out the virus as quickly as possible; treating sick birds is just not an option, he said.

The state is even printing up brochures in five languages to spread the word among backyard flock owners about the threat.

Some factors unique to Georgia help protect the state’s poultry agriculture, Cobb said.

The main body of the Atlantic migratory flyway is toward the coast, but most of the Georgia poultry industry is more toward the center and west of the state, he said.

Georgia’s warmer poultry houses, and warmer climate, are less hospitable to the virus than cooler climes, he said. And most Georgia chicken houses are well sealed, which also helps keep the virus out.

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