Nearly 23 million birds have died this year in the U.S., part of a bird flu outbreak that’s the worst since 2015. In that outbreak, more than 50 million birds died. No case has been reported in Oregon, but the avian flu virus was recently found in a bald eagle in British Columbia, which has the poultry industry on high alert. The virus is easily passed from wild to domestic birds, including to or from a small flock of chickens in a backyard, and can be spread by people who don’t even keep birds. The Oregon Department of Agriculture is working with the handful of commercial operations on their biosecurity measures, and trying to get the word out to countless smaller producers and the general public. We hear more from Ryan Scholz, the state veterinarian at ODA, who says his job is to “prepare for the worst” but “push for the best.” ODA and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife each have hotlines to report suspected cases of avian flu. For domestic birds, the number is 800-347-7028. For wild birds, it’s 866-968-2600.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB. This is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Last month, a bald eagle near Vancouver, British Columbia tested positive for something known as the highly pathogenic avian influenza, meaning a bad bird flu. The virus has spread in many East Coast states, forcing poultry producers to kill millions and millions of birds, but this was the first time it had been found on the West Coast. For more on what this means for commercial operations and for people with backyard chickens, I’m joined by Ryan Scholz. He is the State Veterinarian at the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Ryan Scholz: Good afternoon. Thanks for having me.
Miller: Why is this avian flu so serious?
Scholz: So this specific strain that’s really affecting the eastern half of the US right now is pretty devastating because it kills birds really quickly. It’s what we know as a highly pathogenic avian influenza. Well, while avian influenzas are common in our wild water fouls, most of the time, what we see are low pathogenicity. It makes them sick, gives them the sniffles and then they get over it. But these high path strains, they don’t, they don’t follow that same playbook.
Miller: After the virus had been found in many states in the eastern half of the US, in the midwest and the East Coast, was it just a matter of time before it was found on the West Coast?
Scholz: I think it is, although the interesting thing about this detection in British Columbia is that the genetic analysis of the virus tells us that it was actually a separate introduction into the western fly, the pacific flyway here on the West Coast than what they’re seeing on the East Coast. It wasn’t a case where it spread from that East Coast outbreak over here.
Miller: Which is that, I’m curious even just about the science behind that, we’ve become, because humans have been relatively focused but relatively, underline it and bold and italicize it, on our own pandemic. But does that mean that for avian flu strains like this one, there’s the same kind of looking at strains and looking at the genetic genealogy?
Scholz: Absolutely, yeah. So we, the United States Department of Agriculture, their national Veterinary Services lab, as well as the national labs for other countries as well, they do genetic sequencing of just about any high consequence disease that we’re dealing with, to look at, where did this come from? There’s an incredible amount of information out there in databases that can be looked at and they can do those genealogies of, this one came from this area, this one came from this area, these two are connected but these two aren’t connected or they were connected several years ago, but not right now. So yeah, absolutely. You know that has been done for quite a few years actually.
Miller: It almost seems like worse news then that, if we’ve been worried about birds somehow going from Virginia to Missouri and then making their way further west or as different lines migrate. But if you’re saying that the one in BC was totally different, it’s just another thing to worry about.
Scholz: Well I think it is and it isn’t. So the one thing to remember, one of the biggest things to remember is bird migratory waterfowl fly north to south. So we weren’t really worried about a bird flying from Georgia to Oregon. What we really were worried about is there, the birds fly north and south in what we call flyways and therefore flyways across the country. They’re just kind of broad geographic patterns that the birds follow. There’s a tiny bit of overlap that happens but not a lot, except for in the summer and winter. You know when they reach their destinations and especially those summer breeding grounds up in Alaska and the northern territories of Canada, all four of those flyways converge. They also get overlap from European and Asian flyways. And so that’s why it doesn’t really come as that much of a surprise to have a separate introduction because we know that there is overlap in those flyways and over into Europe and Asia as well. Once you get up into the northern regions of earth, you know that it’s not nearly as far as it is from down here, so we do see those overlaps. So it’s a case that was sooner than we expected, right? We were kind of, we’ve done a lot of surveillance here on the West Coast and we haven’t found this highly pathogenic strain within the US and the western flyway, in the Pacific flyway this year.
Miller: You were expecting in the fall after birds get together in Alaska in the summer?
Scholz: Yeah, no one knows for sure if that will happen, but you know, I’d sure rather prepare for that. do a lot of outreach now, help producers prepare for that possibility and be ready for it than to be caught off guard by it. So that was kind of the assumption we’ve been working under.
Miller: So what does that mean? What are the precautions that producers should be taking right now?
Scholz: So right now, it is kind of your chance to do a dry run of this. We refer to those precautions as biosecurity. Everything we’ve been doing with Covid over the last couple of years for ourselves is a form of biosecurity. It’s things we can do to limit exposure of our birds, in this case, from sources of infection, particularly wild waterfowl, whether that’s direct exposure. So if you’ve got a small flock in your patch and you’ve got a pond out there where wild ducks come and go, fencing your birds away from that pond, you don’t get direct interactions, but even things as straight forward as if you have a couple of birds in your backyard and you go to the park and you walk the path around the lake at the park and there’s ducks and geese that frequent that lake, when you come home, making sure that your shoes are clean, changing shoes even.
Miller: Because the virus could even be on say goose droppings.
Scholz: Absolutely. That’s actually how it spreads normally, is through those droppings. And so, creating a separation between that potential exposure pathway, is really what it’s about.
Miller: What is the worst case scenario here? I mean, folks may have heard on Here and Now, just before Think Out Loud started, we heard folks in Iowa talking about 15 million birds being killed, most of them culled because of fear of outbreaks. Is that, is that the worst case scenario at a Northwest chicken or egg farm?
Scholz: I think that’s one of the worst case scenarios that if, if we had a case in a commercial flock, that flock would have to be culled. We don’t have 15 million birds in Oregon. We have a much smaller industry here. Those midwestern states far out pass the Northwest and that so, not quite to those numbers, but yeah, it is a risk. And that probably is a worst case scenario risk. But for any individual listener, probably the worst case scenario for them is that their chickens get this disease and end up dying from it. I think that that’s just as big of a risk to an individual that has five chickens as one that has 50,000 chickens, that those chickens are their, in a lot of cases, their pets, and we don’t want to see those birds get sick and die from this disease.
Miller: And also maybe more likely that the person with three chickens is less likely to be aware of biosecurity measures than folks who rely on this as a major business.
Scholz: Possibly, yeah. And that’s, that’s where opportunities like this to, to really get that information out and talk about it is really important that it’s, it takes individual action from everyone to be able to protect your own animals.
Miller: Ryan Scholz, thanks very much for your time.
Scholz: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
Miller: Ryan Scholz is State Veterinarian at the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
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