With the fall bird migrations and hunting season, Clemson veterinary officials urge renewed caution to protect the S.C. poultry industry from avian flu.
Image Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

COLUMBIA — As waterfowl wing their way southward on the autumn winds, duck hunters soon will scan the skies for signs of their first targets of the season.

This year, another kind of hunter will be on the lookout, too.

Clemson University veterinarians will be searching for signs of a devastating avian influenza that infects wild waterfowl and can destroy domestic poultry — a huge source of income for South Carolina farms.

“The outbreak of HPAI earlier this year in the West and Midwest was the most costly and significant animal disease incident in U.S. history,” said Boyd Parr, state veterinarian and director of Clemson University Livestock-Poultry Health, a state regulatory agency that protects animal health and investigates diseases. “It has been devastating to the poultry industry, affecting more than 48 million commercial poultry in 223 locations in those states.”

HPAI, or highly pathogenic avian influenza, is not currently a threat to people, but it is lethal to poultry. Economic losses from the disease this year are estimated at $1.2 billion just in Iowa alone, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports it has spent $1 billion combatting the virus so far in states as far-flung as Arkansas and Oregon.

South Carolina has yet to see the disease, but poultry producers here are understandably concerned for their industry, which annually brings in more than $12 billion, more than a quarter of the total economic impact of the state’s agribusinesses.

Parr said that concern rises as the weather cools and waterfowl like ducks and geese begin their annual migrations.

“HPAI was diagnosed earlier this year in three of the four major migratory bird flyways in the United States,” he said. “USDA has said it expects to detect it in the Atlantic flyway, which passes directly through South Carolina, with the migration this fall or next spring. Should it establish a foothold here, the potential cost is severe.”

Hunting season for most migratory birds is fast approaching, and Parr said November through February is considered the highest-risk period for HPAI detection in the Palmetto State.

He warns poultry owners to distance their flocks from any contact with wild waterfowl and the ponds that attract them. Hunters should take precautions to keep from tracking the virus back to a domestic flock of chickens or turkeys.

“If they have poultry and decide to hunt, they should never go straight from the hunt to their birds,” Parr said. “Ideally they should wait three days after hunting to return to their birds. After visiting another poultry farm, bird show or live bird market, they should shower, change clothing and footwear before working with their birds, and visitors should wear protective clothing and footwear as well.”

Clemson University Livestock-Poultry Health is the lead agency responsible for managing HPAI should it be discovered in South Carolina. Working with USDA and state health, emergency, agriculture and wildlife departments, Parr’s agency has developed plans for the prevention, detection and, if necessary, response to the disease.

“Prevention is clearly the immediate goal,” Parr said. “We try to spread the word about good biosecurity measures all year. In the face of HPAI, it is all the more important.”

Parr advises that poultry owners should be careful about bringing new birds, and possibly a new disease, into their flocks. Separate new birds from the home flock for four weeks to see if they show any signs of disease. Buy new birds only from reputable breeders.

“They also should keep pests, such as rodents, raccoons and opossums, away from bird houses and pens,” he said. “These pests share the same habitats as wild waterfowl and also can spread the disease. Don’t let domestic birds free range with wild waterfowl. And certainly don’t entice the waterfowl to come into your yard by feeding them.”

In addition to practicing good biosecurity, owners should watch their birds closely and report unexplained illness or death to Livestock-Poultry Health at 803-788-2260.

“It’s important for owners to know what healthy birds look like and monitor birds for signs and symptoms of disease,” Parr said. “Keep their water and feeders clean, along with equipment that may come in contact with them. The virus can hitchhike on such things as tires, equipment and supplies.”

The HPAI threat extends across the state and reaches both large farms and small backyard flocks. There are more than 800 commercial poultry farms with over 3,350 active houses in South Carolina — more than 600 of them chickens raised for meat or eggs. More than 200 commercial farms raise turkeys, and a few even raise quail.

“The financial stakes to South Carolina are very high. There are also lots of small, backyard poultry flocks all over the state, including cities, towns and suburbs,” Parr said. “This is literally an issue that affects the entire state. If HPAI does arrive, the potential impact is severe, so we stress immediate reporting of any unexplained poultry mortality.”

If the disease is discovered here, Parr’s agency is prepared to conduct immediate testing to confirm the disease and to depopulate and safely dispose of infected flocks if necessary.

The role of Clemson Livestock-Poultry Health is to protect animal health through control of diseases in livestock and poultry and to protect the health of consumers. It serves as South Carolina’s animal health authority, state meat and poultry inspection department, and the state’s veterinary diagnostic center. In light of the threat from HPAI and other pathogens, the agency will request additional funds in next year’s budget from the state legislature to strengthen its ability to prevent, detect and respond to infectious disease.

“An animal pathogen outbreak could also disrupt food supplies, cause a loss of agriculture industry access to both interstate and international markets, and force the depopulation and disposal of millions of farm animals,” Parr said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control have reported no evidence of human infection from this virus, but will continue to monitor it. And it is unlikely that HPAI will disappear any time soon.

“We are constantly on the lookout, and this outbreak especially has grabbed the attention of everyone connected with animal health,” Parr said. “We all need to be prepared and conscientious about our state’s safety.”