Iowa Warily Guards Against Bird Flu

September 16, 2015 04:00 AM
Iowa Warily Guards Against Bird Flu

After losing nearly 32 million birds to avian influenza this year, Iowa farmers are finally beginning to rebuild their flocks.

Of the 75 outbreaks in the state, 20 farms have been given the go-ahead to repopulate their operations and another 30 farms are expected to be cleared in the weeks ahead, according to Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, speaking on AgriTalk with Mike Adams.

“We had 71 farms—36 chicken (farms), 35 turkey (farms) and six backyard flocks,” Northey told Adams. “It doesn’t sound like all that many, but when you start to total up the economic impact and the total number of jobs lost around those businesses, it’s huge.”

How huge? One study released in May estimated the bird flu would cost the economies of Iowa and neighboring Minnesota nearly $1 billion.

It’s an experience that Northey does not want to see happen this fall as wild birds—the source of the virus—begin migrating from north to south along the Mississippi flyway.

“Preparation for fall is very aggressive, and we are trying to make sure we have the resources,” Northey said. “One of the things we were challenged with (earlier in 2015) was having enough resources to handle the large number of birds that had to be put down quickly.”

He also expects those decisions to be made faster, now that the virus has shown how contagious and deadly it can be. “Surveillance will be very aggressive, trying to find those birds right away, and we’ll look at killing those birds a lot faster,” Northey said.

He discounted the suggestion that large, confined poultry operations contributed the spread of the disease. “We saw it happen in big facilities and small facilities. We saw it in backyard flocks. … what we found out is these birds are susceptible,” said Northey, who observed that only young birds—broilers, layer pullets, and young turkeys—seemed to avoid infection.

Listen to Northey's full comments on AgriTalk, beginning around the 12-minute mark.


Northey also discussed the prospect of a bird flu vaccine, which is currently in development. While a vaccine could be a useful tool for controlling an outbreak, he noted its limitations, given that viruses can change over time.

“We don’t know what (form) this virus (will take). It could be very different. It may not even be susceptible to the same vaccine that was created for the version that (emerged) last spring,” he said. “The other thing about vaccines is that you don’t (use them) to stop the birds from getting the virus. What you do is minimize the impact … which may mask surveillance.”

Why not use the vaccine on birds to prevent infection in the first place? A host of reasons, according to Northey. “It’s probably not something we’d use pre-emptively, because we know it kills trade (and) it creates other issues,” he said. “It has to be part of a bigger plan.”

He pointed to the global footprint of the virus and all its various forms. “When you step back, you see more avian influenzas around the world,” Northey said. “We see more problems in Europe, in Africa, in South America, certainly in Asia around avian influenza, so there is a bigger question we have to figure out (about the virus and how to control it). … Eventually, those things can mutate in a way that can affect humans, so we have to find ways to handle this disease.”

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