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Experts Weigh In On Avian Flu Spread

Avian flu is spreading across the country, and it’s shown up at six South Dakota turkey operations. Those farms are in counties including Beadle, Kingsbury, McCook, McPherson, Roberts and Spink. The virus moves rapidly when birds catch the H5N2 strain.

Avian flu viruses commonly exist in wild bird populations, and the latest version is spreading onto farms. It hits quickly. John Clifford is the Chief Veterinary Officer for the USDA.

"The turkeys will go off water and feed, and once they start doing that, it doesn’t take very long for the birds – you’re talking hours at times – for the birds to become very lethargic, and they’ll have a condition that you might see that we refer to as torticollis which is like stargazing and a little twisting of the neck, followed rapidly by death," Clifford says. 

Clifford says authorities have to kill all of the birds at a commercial farm when they discover the H5N2 virus. He says nationally about 3.5 million birds have died as officials try to control the avian flu spread.

South Dakota’s State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven says more than 300,000 of those were in South Dakota. He says sick turkeys show obvious symptoms.

"We call it highly pathogenic for a reason. It basically shows up as rapid death loss of a large number of birds," Oedekoven says. "Those birds that haven’t died yet in that phase where they’re ill, they show neurologic signs. Their eyes are swollen; their waddles and their combs are swollen. They have ruffled feathers. They have a very high temperature. They often sit on the ground, which is somewhat unusual. They kind of sit huddled there in place because they don’t want to move."

Oedekoven says the H5N2 virus hasn’t mutated to affect animals like pigs. National experts say the avian flu spreading across Midwest farms poses low risk to human beings. Dr. Alicia Fry with the Centers for Disease Control says this strain of bird flu is not the same as other viruses.

"The avian H5 viruses that have been found in US wild birds and commercial poultry are different from the ones that we’ve been following around the world for several years now. These specific viruses have not caused infections in people anywhere in the world," Fry says. 

Fry says the risk to the general public is low, but human infections could be possible. She says anyone with direct contact with poultry should take precautions to avoid exposure.

Health officials say the virus is not a food safety issue and no poultry with the avian flu are on the market.

Kealey Bultena grew up in South Dakota, where her grandparents took advantage of the state’s agriculture at nap time, tricking her into car rides to “go see cows.” Rarely did she stay awake long enough to see the livestock, but now she writes stories about the animals – and the legislature and education and much more. Kealey worked in television for four years while attending the University of South Dakota. She started interning with South Dakota Public Broadcasting in September 2010 and accepted a position with television in 2011. Now Kealey is the radio news producer stationed in Sioux Falls. As a multi-media journalist, Kealey prides herself on the diversity of the stories she tells and the impact her work has on people across the state. Kealey is always searching for new ideas. Let her know of a great story! Find her on Facebook and twitter (@KealeySDPB).