15,000 Pope County turkeys die from avian flu; humans not at risk

Talking turkey
The 15,000 birds that died lived in a single turkey barn in Pope County. The birds from two nearby barns are being quarantined.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Updated: 7:55 p.m. | Posted: 5:43 p.m.

Nearly 15,000 turkeys in Pope County have died from the same lethal avian flu virus that has been confirmed in birds on the West Coast, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture said Thursday.

State health officials said there are no confirmed cases in people, nor is food safety threatened.

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Only workers handling the birds, all from the same commercial flock, are at risk of infection, Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said.

Four workers who had direct contact with the birds are being monitored by MDH for respiratory illnesses. The workers reported that the birds started dying around Feb. 26.

Wild waterfowl carrying the virus pass it on to captive birds through fecal matter, said Minnesota Board of Animal Health state veterinarian Bill Hartmann.

The first reported case of the virus appeared in British Columbia, Canada. The virus then made its way to Washington, Oregon and Idaho as part the Pacific flyway, a major path for migratory birds, he added. The Pope County case is the first in the Mississippi flyway.

The virus was detected inside three turkey barns within a 12-mile radius in Pope County. Birds died in just one of the barns. The state will quarantine some of the birds and euthanize others to stop the virus from spreading.

Hartmann said the turkeys were kept indoors at the time of the deaths.

"The good news is there aren't any (other) commercial turkey or poultry at all in that area," he said. "It's all backyard flocks so we should be able to contain this without much difficulty."

The spread of the virus has halted U.S. poultry exports, especially to China, state agriculture commissioner Dave Frederickson said.

Minnesota produces more turkeys than any other state, according to Frederickson. It is valued at $750 million a year with $92 million in exports in 2013. The industry supports 3,900 jobs, Frederickson said.