Bird Flu

Turkeys stand in a barn on turkey farm near Manson, Iowa on Aug. 10, 2015.

There are signs that the 2022 avian flu epidemic is starting to lose steam, but poultry farmers and bird enthusiasts shouldn’t rest easy as an uncertain autumn looms on the calendar.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection lifted an order prohibiting transportation of live poultry earlier this month. The decision came after a decline in reported cases, said DATCP spokesman Kevin Hoffman, who noted the last domesticated flock to test positive was a backyard flock in Bayfield County on May 20.

So, is this the beginning of the end? Not quite. While the decline in cases is promising, the virus is still rampant among wild populations across the state and the arrival of autumn bird migrations could pose a serious problem.

“We want to be careful about giving that impression because things can be so unpredictable,” Hoffman said. “We’re seeing fewer cases, seeing fewer calls, but we’re still seeing plenty of positive tests among the wild populations. The virus is still here, still in Wisconsin, so we don’t want people to be complacent.”

At face value, the 2022 pandemic has surpassed the last major outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, or HPAI, in 2015. That year, 10 Wisconsin poultry farms and 1.9 million birds were affected. This year, 22 domestic flocks in 14 counties, totaling about 3 million birds, have been ravaged by the extremely transmissible disease.

It’s worth noting that these numbers can be a bit misleading in terms of tracking the spread.

This year’s numbers are a bit inflated by an infection that spread in the state’s largest egg-laying facility in Jefferson Co., where 2.7 million birds were affected. So much of the damage was concentrated there.

“It’s who hit and who isn’t, so it’s about taking the proper precautions and being vigilant,” Hoffman said. “We still need to keep in front of it, keep being aware, because we don’t know what summer and fall will look like with the migration season. People need to stay vigilant.”

The 2015 and 2022 HPAI outbreaks represent different variants of the disease, which is a European form of avian flu.

Notably, this year’s outbreak affected more backyard and wild bird populations than its 2015 counterpart, which primarily spread among enclosed commercial populations. In total, taking wild populations in account, avian flu has been documented in 50 counties, where it continues to be a point of concern for the state’s veterinarian experts.

The disease is highly contagious and can be spread via contact with droppings, infected birds, equipment, clothes, or anything that comes into proximity with the virus. As such, Wisconsin State Veterinarian Darlene Konkle said, strictly following biosecurity measures is necessary to protect commercial populations and contain the spread of HPAI during migration season.

If poultry farmers suspect HPAI is present in a commercial or wild bird population, they should report it. Konkle advised poultry farmers to be vigilant and keep the following symptoms of HPAI in mind while they’re monitoring their flocks:

  • Sudden death of birds without clinical signs. Typically, sudden and high rates of fatality are a sure sign of HPAI in a commercial flock.
  • Lack of energy or appetite in the animal.
  • Decrease in egg production; soft, misshapen eggs produced by hens.
  • Purple discoloration of wattles, comb, and legs.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Runny nose, coughing, sneezing.
  • Stumbling or falling down.
  • Diarrhea.

In mid-March, DATCP notified the public that HPAI had been confirmed at a commercial flock in Jefferson County. It marked the first documented case of 2015, when a variant of HPAI affected 10 separate Wisconsin operations — six turkey flocks, a backyard farmstead and three hen laying facilities.

The 2015 HPAI outbreak was devastating on a national scale, ravaging more than 240 farms in 15 states, ultimately leading to the demise of 50 million birds and more than $1 billion in costs to the federal government.

While it causes rapid fatalities in affected flocks, the 2022 outbreak doesn’t appear to pose a significant threat to humans, so long as sanitation and cooking guidelines are followed. If HPAI infected meat or eggs are cooked to 165 degrees or more, it will destroy the virus.