Monday, March 20, 2023
March 20, 2023

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First avian flu outbreak in a Washington commercial flock reported near Tri-Cities


A business in Franklin County has the first outbreak in Washington state of avian influenza in a large commercial flock of chicken since a nationwide outbreak began in February.

Chickens are being humanely killed to contain the outbreak, with thousands of birds in the commercial flock impacted, according to the Benton Franklin Health District.

Previously this year the Washington state Department of Agriculture has reported infections in 36 small or medium-sized backyard flocks of chickens, ducks and geese, but none in large commercial flocks until now.

Avian influenza, or bird flu, has been detected in wild birds and baby raccoons in the Tri-Cities area this year, but not in local domestic flocks before state and Tri-Cities area officials announced the commercial flock outbreak on Wednesday.

The Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that during cold weather wild birds are flocking together to feed and the agency is getting reports of more suspected cases in wild birds in the state. Wild birds can spread the disease to domestic flocks.

Franklin County chickens infected

The commercial operation in Franklin County last week reported high numbers of sudden deaths in their chickens in a single barn at one of their farms to the state Department of Agriculture.

Other birds were lethargic and showing other signs of illness, prompting an investigation by state and federal veterinarians.

Laboratory tests at the Washington Animal Disease and Diagnostic Laboratory appeared to be positive. Further tests at National Veterinary Services Laboratories are expected this week to confirm highly pathogenic avian influenza.

The affected premises in Franklin County have been quarantined to prevent the spread of the disease. All birds on the premise were being killed to contain the outbreak, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

No food products from the flock will enter the food supply system, according to state officials.

Cooking eggs and poultry kills the virus that causes avian flu, said Heather Hill of the Benton Franklin Health District, speaking on the Wednesday Kadlec on Call podcast.

The Benton Franklin Health District is contacting all employees at the commercial operation who handled the birds. They are being monitored for symptoms and testing will be done and medication made available if needed, Hill said.

There have been no cases of avian influenza identified in people in Washington state, said Hannah Schnitzler, communicable disease epidemiologist with Washington state Department of Health.

“Human cases from bird flu are very rare. When they do occur it is from direct touching and handling of infected birds,” said Dr. Larry Jecha, health officer for Benton and Franklin counties.

Due to the high number of other respiratory infections in the Tri-Cities area now, the health district is being vigilant to help potentially exposed employees stay healthy, it said.

Monitoring for bird flu

State and federal animal health officials are monitoring flocks within about a six mile radius of the infected site.

Commercial operations in that area are required to closely monitor flock health and have regular testing. They must request permits from the state to move safe products out of or into the area.

Although this is the first large commercial flock outbreak in Washington this year, there have been more than 250 outbreaks in about two dozen states across the country this year.

Anyone with poultry in the Tri-Cities area should remain vigilant for signs of avian influenza, said the Benton Franklin Health District.

Avian flu naturally occurs in wild birds worldwide and spreads through contact with saliva, nasal secretions, feces or surfaces that are contaminated with the virus.

The Washington state Department of Agriculture recommends confining backyard domestic flocks in an area with a roof that does not allow water through.

“There is clear evidence that viral loads are high in wild birds and the environment,” said Dana Dobbs, the state avian health program lead, Wednesday. “Recent large die offs in geese across the state increase the risk to our domestic flocks for the unforeseeable future.”

Earlier this month Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists responded to reports of sick or dead waterfowl in western Skagit County on and around Skagit Bay, as well as in northwestern Snohomish County and on Camano Island and Port Susan in Island County.

The agency’s employees have retrieved more than 700 dead birds of several species, but primarily young snow geese, from the area. Samples have been collected to test for suspected avian influenza.

People should avoid contact with sick or dead birds and report them to the Department of Agriculture’s phone line at 800-606-3056 or to the Department of Fish and Wildlife with its online form.

Bird hunters also should take steps to avoid exposure to avian influenza.

They should not eat, drink or smoke while cleaning or processing birds and decontaminate tools and surfaces with a 10% bleach solution. Any carcasses will need to be bagged and disposed of to prevent scavenging by raptors.