The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, working with the United States Department of Agriculture (UDSA), other government agencies and the state’s poultry industry, is taking proactive measures to strengthen the state’s avian influenza surveillance program as an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza, identified as the H5N2 strain, has caused other states to lose millions of turkeys and chickens. Acting Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding today strongly encouraged the state’s poultry producers to be vigilant for signs of the disease and to adopt protective biosecurity measures in preparation for H5N2’s possible introduction to Pennsylvania.

“By protecting animal health, we are ultimately protecting human health,” said Redding. “I thank those producers who have already implemented biosecurity protocols, and I encourage others to do the same in order to help guard against this potentially devastating outbreak. We’ve been tracking this disease closely as it has spread in other states. By working closely with the industry, as well as other government and public health stakeholders, we are making every effort to prepare Pennsylvania in the event the disease is found here.”

Avian influenza, commonly known as “bird flu,” is caused by an influenza type-A virus. Avian influenza viruses occur naturally in birds. Wild bird species (such as ducks, swans and geese) can carry the virus, but usually do not exhibit symptoms. However, avian influenza in birds is very contagious and can make domesticated birds (including chickens, ducks, quail, pheasants, guinea fowl and turkeys) very sick or even cause death.

Anyone who owns or works with poultry, whether on a commercial farm, in the wild, or at a hobby farm should follow biosecurity practices. Examples of such practices include:

• Keeping all areas around your flocks clean.
• Ensuring new birds added to a flock are free of any signs of disease.
• Observing flocks for warning signs of infectious bird diseases.
• Immediately reporting signs of sick birds.

“Our state and nation’s food supply is safe for consumers, as the United States has the strongest avian influenza surveillance system in the world,” added Redding. “To date, there have been no human infections detected from the highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses currently circulating in the United States bird populations, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and health professionals the risk to humans is low.”

Since December 2014, the USDA has confirmed cases of the highly pathogenic avian influenza in the Pacific, Central and Mississippi migratory paths for birds. No highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses have been detected in Pennsylvania since an outbreak in 1983 and 1984, when Pennsylvania lost 17 million birds worth $65 million. That outbreak spurred the department to create an avian influenza surveillance program.

“Since the early 1980s outbreak, Pennsylvania has investigated every avian influenza infection, whether the case was low pathogenic or highly pathogenic,” said Pennsylvania State Veterinarian Craig Shultz. “We’ve taken an abundance of caution in our testing protocol that has served our state well for more than 30 years. When a case of avian influenza occurred in 1998, we found it quickly and secured it before the disease became a statewide problem.”

Pennsylvania’s three animal health laboratories analyzed nearly 200,000 samples for avian influenza last year. The laboratories, which comprise the Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System, have the capacity to test many more samples, if necessary.

To be prepared in the event of a positive case of avian influenza, the department is reviewing procedures, inventorying supplies and protective equipment, discussing the response plan with those in the industry, and anticipating various scenarios of how the outbreak would progress.