PROVIDENCE – The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is advising commercial poultry producers and household keepers of backyard chicken coops that a virulent flu that has been detected in Massachusetts and Connecticut is likely headed to Rhode Island and may cause widespread mortality among birds that become infected. The United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) confirmed the presence of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in a wild bird in South Carolina Jan. 14. HPAI detections do not present an immediate public health concern, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). No human cases of these avian influenza viruses have been detected in the United States. Birds from infected flocks will not enter the food system. CDC reminds the public that the proper handling and cooking of poultry and eggs to an internal temperature of 165 degrees kills bacteria and viruses.
Following its HPAI detection in South Carolina, APHIS has confirmed the presence of HPAI in Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Delaware, North Carolina, Virginia, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Iowa, Connecticut (on March 2), and Massachusetts (on March 3). Rhode Island is at risk because the flu has been detected in hunter-harvested wild waterfowl reported along the Atlantic flyway, which is the migratory bird route that includes Rhode Island, and because of its proximity to the southern New England states where the disease has now been found.
Avian influenza, sometimes called bird flu or avian flu, is a disease of birds, usually carried by wild waterfowl and other waterbirds. Sometimes, this disease also can spread from wild birds into domestic poultry. Although avian influenza and human influenza are both caused by influenza viruses, each virus generally affects either birds or people, but not both. Some people, however, have been infected with avian influenza viruses following contact with infected birds. If human-to-human spread with this virus were to occur, that would raise the public health threat. However, according to the CDC, person-to-person spread has occurred rarely, mainly in family clusters and no sustained transmission has been noted. Avian influenza viruses respond to standard antiviral drugs such as Oseltamivir.
HPAI infection brings a grim prognosis, with domestic poultry mortality rates approaching 100 percent. Without control of the spread by humanely killing infected chickens, all poultry could be wiped out across the state. Humanely depopulating infected birds will limit how much they suffer from the infection and remove them as a source of infection for other birds. Poultry producers won't be eligible for economic relief through indemnity unless DEM tests the birds and approves depopulation. Producers will be able to seek federal indemnity money for producers that have lab-confirmed positive tests and depopulation approved by both USDA and DEM.
"This strain of avian flu is deadly to chickens, turkeys, ducks, quail, and other birds," said State Veterinarian Scott Marshall DVM, who is leading DEM's response to the HPAI threat. "It could cause significant economic harm to Rhode Island poultry producers. For now, while DEM continues to monitor flocks for infection, we urge all poultry owners to take precautions to protect their flocks by enhancing biosecurity."
Biosecurity, Dr. Marshall explains, involves basic but essential measures such as restricting access to and keeping people away from your birds, keeping your birds separated from all wild birds, particularly migratory waterfowl, keeping cages, coops, and clothes clean and disinfected; properly disposing of dead birds, not sharing equipment with other poultry producers or farmers, knowing the warning signs of infectious diseases, and reporting sick birds or unusual bird deaths to DEM. Members of the public wishing to report sick or dying domestic birds should call 401-222-2781. If they fail to reach someone or if it's after regular business hours, please call 401-222-3070. To report sick or dying wild birds, please call DEM's Division of Fish & Wildlife at 401-789-0281.
DEM is working closely with APHIS on monitoring and surveilling HPAI and with the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) and the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA) to coordinate emergency response plans. DEM has been reaching out to urge poultry producers to strengthen biosecurity measures. Related, DEM and most agriculture regulatory agencies in New England are asking poultry owners to voluntarily postpone shows, exhibitions, and poultry swap meets where birds are traded through June. Also, Rep. Brandon C. Potter (D-Cranston) introduced legislation (H7785) March 3 that would give DEM authority to quarantine and restrict movement of domestic animals to mitigate the threat of zootic diseases and to enact state and federal response and containment plans.
DEM's plan includes responding quickly to reports of sick or dying poultry, obtaining samples, and submitting these samples to nationally accredited labs for a diagnosis. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, the poultry on that farm will be depopulated within 24 hours to reduce virus amplification by infected birds. DEM response teams may establish a control zone around the affected farm if the affected farm is a commercial poultry producer. All poultry and poultry products within the control zone will be under movement restriction and surveillance teams will need to go into the zone to collect samples for surveillance. DEM will prioritize samples from sick birds, but anyone who wishes to move birds from a control zone will be required to have those birds tested prior to movement, and they will need to have a permit issued prior to movement in accordance with state and federal plans.
For more information on the avian flu, how it's transmitted, symptoms, and emergency response, please visit our website. For more information about DEM divisions and programs, follow us on Facebook, Twitter (@RhodeIslandDEM), or Instagram (@rhodeisland.dem) for timely updates.