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Update on bird flu in Minnesota as pathogen spills into other populations

A duck has a swab sample taken
A duck has a swab sample taken from its throat to be tested for avian influenza virus at Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area near Middle River, Minn.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2022

Millions of birds around the country are being culled by farmers as an outbreak of avian influenza, or bird flu, continues to spread — and infect other species like cattle.

Crews in Sioux County, Iowa were forced to dispatch a flock of 4.2 million egg-laying chickens, according to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. It’s the first backyard or poultry case in the state this year. Last week, another 1.4 million chickens were euthanized at an egg farm west of Minneapolis due to bird flu.

“It's always a concern when we see this virus enter a flock of that size. Unfortunately, the mortality rates with this virus approach 100 percent, so the humane thing to do is to euthanize, depopulate these birds before they have to suffer,” Dr. Brian Hoefs, state veterinarian with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health told MPR News Wednesday. He also notes that Minnesota is the largest turkey producer in the country.

This bird flu season is “a little bit later than we would expect,” Hoefs said. “The migration has moved through and we thought we were somewhat in the clear but it appears that it's hanging around. The virus is in the environment, it's in local birds and we're expecting this to drag out a little bit more than it had.”

Earlier this spring, a young goat in Stevens County, Minn., contracted the disease — the first detection in U.S. livestock. There’s also growing concern over the pathogen being present in dairy milk supply. The Centers for Disease Control recently reported two cases of an avian influenza strain infecting humans; Hoefs says there are many lingering unknowns. The presentation of disease like mild pinkeye, he said, was unconventional for an influenza virus.

Mitigation is a matter of “biosecurity, biosecurity, biosecurity,” Hoefs said. That includes poultry farm workers not sharing equipment and frequently cleaning and disinfecting themselves when entering and exiting barns. Minnesota also has a “robust surveillance program,” including weekly testing for birds close to a positive flock to curb any local spread. Before going to a processing plant and market, a sample from each barn must be tested for disease.

When a sample turns up positive, the Board of Animal Health partners with the Department of Health to form an incident management or emergency response team, getting boots in the barn to interview and test workers as necessary.

The Board also offers resources regarding biosecurity for poultry producers, workers and the general public to keep themselves, fowl and other animals healthy. Symptoms of avian influenza in birds include loss of coordination, trouble breathing, tremors, conjunctivitis, trouble keeping upright and the inability to fly, as well as several flock deaths in a short period of time. If you suspect a case of bird flu, call your veterinarian.

Flock owners can also call the Avian Influenza Hotline at 833-454-0156 or report bird illness online. The Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline also offers support for flock owners and workers.

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