Bird flu outbreak could head eastward with fall migration

Published 10:19 am Thursday, April 16, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS — Eastern U.S. poultry producers are bracing for the potential arrival of a deadly bird flu virus outbreak that farmers in the Midwest have struggled to stop.

The fear is that if the virus isn’t already lurking undetected somewhere in the Atlantic Flyway, it could spread there this fall when wild ducks fly south for the winter or fly back north next spring. Eastern poultry producers have had tight biosecurity measures and response plans in place for several years. Now they’re preparing for the worst, said Donna Carver, extension veterinarian at North Carolina State University.

“Nobody wants to take any chances with this,” she said.

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The highly pathogenic H5N2 avian influenza strain has turned up since December in commercial poultry farms, backyard flocks wild birds in the Pacific and Central flyways, but it’s done the most damage in the heavily traveled Mississippi Flyway, which roughly follows the Mississippi River, where Minnesota, the country’s top turkey producing state, has lost nearly 1.5 million turkeys since early March.

Government scientists theorize that when ducks and other migratory waterfowl from different flyways gather at their northern breeding grounds this summer, they could expose each other to the highly pathogenic H5N2 virus, then carry it back south this fall along several migration routes, perhaps including the Atlantic Flyway. That flyway includes several of the country’s top poultry producing states including Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Delaware and Maryland.