PROVIDENCE, RI – The Department of Environmental Management (DEM) today is announcing that the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) agency, has confirmed the presence of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in a noncommercial backyard flock (non-poultry) in Newport County. This is the first domestic detection of HPAI – which has been confirmed in more than 40 states, affecting nearly 50 million domestic birds – in Rhode Island. Last summer, DEM advised the public that HPAI had been found in waterbirds such as gulls and that its crossover to domestic birds appeared inevitable. (Please visit the DEM website for detailed information on HPAI, including DEM's response plan and an FAQ.)
Earlier today, employees of the DEM Division of Agriculture and Forest Environment humanely euthanized the small, mixed flock. It consisted of domestic chickens, ducks, and turkeys and had unrestricted access to wild waterfowl, which carry HPAI and other diseases and can spread them to domestic birds. Situated on the Atlantic flyway, a major north-south migratory bird route, Rhode Island is at risk, and even more so because of the virus's prevalence in wild waterfowl with many species now starting their annual southern migration.
This HPAI outbreak is unprecedented with respect to "viral load," a term that means how much a virus is prevalent in the environment. NOAA Fisheries has confirmed HPAI linked to a recent increase in seal deaths in Maine. A bottlenose dolphin found dead in Florida in September was infected with HPAI, making it the first cetacean to be found with the virus in the United States and only the second known case in the world, according to University of Florida Health. Avian flu infections in these species are remarkably rare.
Although HPAI can infect people, it presents a low public health risk, with person-to-person spread occurring very rarely, mainly in family clusters. Also, no sustained transmission has been noted, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Avian influenza viruses respond to standard antiviral drugs.
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. DEM is working closely with USDA-APHIS on a joint incident response. Quarantine of the affected premises was placed immediately upon suspicion of the disease, and it will remain in effect for a minimum of 120 days after the depopulation of susceptible domestic poultry. This quarantine period will ensure the virus is eliminated from the environment before susceptible species of domestic poultry can be reintroduced.
HPAI infection brings a grim prognosis, with domestic poultry mortality rates exceeding 90 percent. Without control of the spread by humanely killing infected birds, all poultry could be wiped out across the state. Depopulating infected birds, which DEM does by using a method of euthanasia approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association, limits how much they suffer from the infection and removes them as a source of infection for other birds.
"I'm just back from the annual United States Animal Health Association meeting where HPAI understandably was the major topic of discussion," said State Veterinarian Scott Marshall, DVM, who is leading the state's HPAI response. "We now know that the current outbreak is geographically the largest one ever experienced in the United States, is very unusual in that it didn't end over the summer like all previous outbreaks, and unlike the 2015-2016 outbreak, appears mostly to be spreading by wild bird-to-domestic bird contact versus laterally between poultry operations."
This is why Dr. Marshall and DEM Agriculture officials continue to stress the need for biosecurity measures in their outreach to poultry owners across Rhode Island. Biosecurity involves basic but essential practices for poultry owners such as restricting access to and keeping people away from their birds, keeping their 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.
"All poultry owners need to have a biosecurity plan in place and implement that plan," Dr. Marshall said. "It has been well documented that most of the noncommercial flocks that have been infected have had poor or nonexistent biosecurity practices in place, and most commercial flocks that were infected had a written biosecurity plan, but there were breaks in the practices. I strongly encourage all poultry owners, if you haven't already, to develop a written plan and to follow it."
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.
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.
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.