Avian flu found in fifth Minn. flock as federal team joins response

Avian flu has turned up on turkey farms in Minn.
Turkeys are pictured at a turkey farm near Sauk Centre, Minn., in November 2005. This week, federal agriculture officials are sending a team to respond to the latest outbreak of avian flu in Minnesota as the state is now reporting fourth and fifth affected flocks.
Janet Hostetter | AP 2005

Updated: March 29, 5:30 p.m. | Posted: March 28, 12:14 p.m.

Federal agriculture officials are sending a team to respond to the latest outbreak of avian influenza in Minnesota, as the state is now reporting two more affected poultry flocks, bringing the total to five.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture emergency response team will arrive in Minnesota on Wednesday, and will be deployed for at least three weeks. It will support the state’s experts from the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. 

Their work will involve quarantining infected flocks, disease surveillance and coordinating logistics and finances.

Flocks in Meeker and Mower counties tested positive last week. Authorities now say the deadly strain of avian flu has also been found in a commercial flock of 24,000 turkeys in Stearns County, which will be euthanized.

On Friday, state officials reported that they have confirmed avian flu with flocks in two other counties, 23,000 commercial turkeys in Lac Qui Parle County and 40,000 commercial turkeys in Kandiyohi County, in west-central Minnesota.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that the H5N1 strain of avian influenza is a low risk to the public. No human cases of avian influenza have been detected in the U.S.

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But the outbreak represents a serious threat to Minnesota's turkey industry, with nearly 700 farms that raise about 40 million birds a year, the most of any state. 

In 2015, 9 million birds in Minnesota were killed by the virus or euthanized to slow its spread.

Dr. Beth Thompson on avian flu in Minnesota on Morning Edition, March 30

Poultry producers in the state had been on high alert for weeks, taking steps to increase biosecurity, after the virus was detected in neighboring states, including Iowa and South Dakota.

This particular virus is a relative of the 2015 strain, a highly pathogenic variant found in wild birds, said Dr. Carol Cardona, a professor of avian health at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. That’s why the cases are popping up in different areas, not spreading from farm to farm, she said. 

"When it infects poultry flocks, they're quite spread out from each other,” Cardona said. “So we're sort of seeing sort of popcorning effects. It's really widespread. If you look at the whole country map of where cases are, it's just everywhere."

It also shows that farmers’ biosecurity measures are largely working to keep the virus out of their flocks — or to quickly detect positive cases and depopulate the birds to keep it from spreading elsewhere, Cardona said.

“So we may have lost three battles, but we have probably won another 50,” she said.

Word that avian influenza has been confirmed in Minnesota is grim news for anxious poultry farmers, who have been taking extra biosecurity precautions for the past several months as the virus spread across the U.S.

Lynette Gessell is a turkey grower west of Little Falls, where her family raises light hens for about 13 weeks before selling them for processing. 

She said they’re focusing on what they can do within their own flocks to keep the virus at bay — such as assigning employees to specific flocks or farm sites, cleaning frequently, monitoring their flocks for symptoms numerous times a day and reporting any concerns to their veterinarian.

A woman dons plastic coverings over her boots
Lynette Gessell dons plastic coverings over her boots inside a service room connected to a turkey barn. She is sitting on a bench marking a line of separation, designed to prevent any contamination from getting inside the barn where turkeys are kept.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

They’re also avoiding roads where waterfowl like to congregate, and routes with high farm-to-farm traffic.

Despite feeling prepared, the constant vigilance and worry take its toll, said Gessell.

“We're trying to focus on whatever it is that is within our control, and do it to the best of our ability,” she said. 

Officials cautioned that the appearance of avian flu in a backyard flock is a key difference from the 2015 outbreak. The Mower County flock included a mix of ducks, chickens and geese.

Abby Schuft, a University of Minnesota Extension poultry educator, said this strain of avian flu is infecting chickens sooner than the last outbreak in 2015.

"It's very, very rapidly moving virus. And that's why it's so important for us to get messaging out especially for our small flock owners who might be less experienced with this virus, that if they notice any changes in their flocks that they need to be able to act immediately," she said.

Schuft says signs of the virus include chickens that are quieter than normal, or sudden and unexplained death and that chicken owners should wash their hands and wear designated clothing and shoes when going into the coop.

During Minnesota's last bout with avian flu in 2015, there were no broiler chickens affected, and egg-laying hens weren't affected until later in the outbreak, said Dr. Jill Nezworski, a poultry veterinarian and a board member of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.

Nezworski advises anyone with a backyard flock to keep the birds inside for the next few weeks, and away from any standing water that might attract waterfowl. They should also avoid trading birds with other flock owners, she said.