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85,000 birds euthanized as South Dakota sees first avian flu outbreak since 2015

Morgan Lieberman
University of Missouri

State officials say 85,000 birds at two South Dakota facilities have been euthanized as the state tackles its first avian flu outbreak since 2015. Two other sites are under investigation.

"I think the response is going well and the industry has done a great job of stepping up and trying to prevent it," said Dr. Mendel Miller, the assistant state veterinarian.

"They're doing everything they can, but you know, there's just some things that are out of their control, and we just have to deal with it when it happens," he added.

The outbreaks were detected in turkeys at two concentrated animal feeding operations in Charles Mix County, in the southeast part of the state. But other kinds of poultry in close contact with the turkeys were euthanized as well.

Miller said the South Dakota Veterinary Medical Exam Board does not share the names of facilities with outbreaks.

Two other sites are under investigation and Miller said those counties will be identified if the tests come back positive.

About 10 South Dakota farms saw avian flu outbreaks in 2015, Miller said. The outbreak impacted 50 million birds in 15 states. It cost the federal government nearly $1 billion and caused egg prices to spike.

"We hope it doesn't get as large, but if it is migratory waterfowl, they're still around and that risk is still here," Miller said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been reporting avian flu in wild birds, commercial facilities and backyard coops in multiple states since January. The first South Dakota case was reported on March 6.

The current outbreak involves "the highly pathogenic avian influenza," according to the Department of Game, Fish and Parks.

“The current strain appeared in both Canada geese and snow geese and other waterfowl in January in the eastern U.S and Canada,” GF&P senior waterfowl biologist Rocco Murano said in a news release. “Detections have now been found throughout the Atlantic, Central and Mississippi flyways.”

“This particular strain appears to be more severe in that it impacts wild birds, and more transmissible among these wild bird populations," Murano said.

Murano said spring migration is ongoing but the virus should become less prevalent as the country moves into warmer weather.

Miller said the South Dakota birds might have contracted the avian flu from these wild birds. The disease can also spread when poultry are bought across state lines, but the affected facilities had not recently purchased out-of-state birds.

Symptoms of avian flu include respiratory distress, purple and swollen body parts, lack of energy and appetite, and reduced or abnormal egg production.

"Highly pathogenic avian influenza is a very high mortality disease. So typically they'll see an increase in death loss the first day with a dramatic spike following," Miller said.

Workers can help prevent the disease by changing clothes and washing hands after interacting with poultry, Miller said. The USDA offers additional tips:

  • Create and educate workers on a biosecurity plan.
  • Disinfect shoes, equipment and vehicles.
  • Limit the amount of people who have contact with the birds.
  • Isolate birds who attend shows before returning them to the flock.
  • Keep wild birds and rodents away from the flock, and secure food and water sources so wild animals can't get into them.

Farms have their veterinarians test for avian flu through respiratory swabs which are sent to South Dakota State University, Miller said.
He said staff from the state veterinary board or U.S. Department of Agriculture do additional testing if the initial results are positive or unclear. Those samples are sent to SDSU and may also be sent to a federal lab in Ames, Iowa.

Avian flu outbreaks are contained by killing the sick birds and those in close contact with them. Veterinarians follow various methods and guidelines from the USDA, Miller said.

He said one of the South Dakota farms used foam, which suffocates the birds. The other shut off the ventilation system and turned up the heat.

Miller said farmers that have to kill their birds can receive financial compensation from the USDA.

He said birds can pass the disease to humans, but that hasn't happened this year and didn't happen in 2015 within South Dakota.

Avian flu is rarely transmitted from birds to humans, Murano said. South Dakota has not seen transmissions this year or in 2015, Miller added.

Murano said South Dakotans should report waterfowl, raptors, water birds and avian scavengers that are sick or died from an unknown cause.

"Look for symptoms of unusual behavior, loss of coordination, or the inability to fly or walk properly," Murano said.

People can share reports by emailing or contacting their local conservation officers. They should not touch the birds.

Hunters do not need to worry about snow goose as long as they cook them to 165 degrees, Murano said. They should also dry their gear between outings.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.
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