An outbreak of the bird flu has been reported on a turkey farm in southern Indiana and nearly 30,000 turkeys have already been euthanized in efforts to control the spread. This does not present an immediate concern to public health, federal officials said, but it does have agriculture and industry folks worried.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported the confirmed case of the H5N1 strain of avian flu at a farm in Dubois County. It is a highly pathogenic strain, meaning it is lethal to all poultry that contract the disease.
This is the nation’s first confirmed case of the flu in a commercial operation since 2020 and six years since it was last found on farms in Indiana, when hundreds of thousands of birds were killed as a result.
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“This is a foreign animal disease and shouldn’t be on our landscape,” said Denise Derrer Spears, the spokeswoman of the Indiana State Board of Animal Health. “That flips the switch and makes this a big deal right off the bat, and we need to stamp it out before it gets out of control.”
The response to the outbreak has been swift, both from state and federal agencies as well as the economy. Taiwan has restricted poultry meat and egg products from Indiana while China and Korea blocked non-heated poultry meat from the state, the USDA said on its website. Though limited, these trade restrictions and loss of poultry are a blow to the farm sector and individual producers.
You cannot get bird flu from eating fully cooked poultry meat or eggs, according to medical experts. This does not present a food safety risk, and the USDA said turkeys from the affected farm will not enter the food supply — “but it’s a matter of public perception,” Derrer Spears said.
The current situation began on Feb. 7, when the affected farmer noticed about 100 birds were dead in one of his barns and the remaining ones were lethargic. He worked with his veterinarian to get samples collected from the flock and sent to a lab at Purdue University. The results were then confirmed at a USDA lab in Iowa.
The name of the affected farm has not been publicly identified.
As soon as the state received the results, it issued a quarantine at the site and all those farms within a 10-kilometer radius. That includes 17 other operations, Derrer Spears said. She could not give exact numbers on how many birds were impacted, but it’s likely more than a few hundred thousand.
Dubois County is the top turkey producing county in Indiana. And Indiana is the third-largest turkey producing state in the country, the No. 1 state in duck production and the second largest in table eggs and egg-laying chickens.
All those farms within the control area will have to test their animals at least once each week to monitor for the disease. The first round of tests came back negative, Derrer Spears said, but the state is remaining very cautious.
“While it’s just one incident right now, 18 farms in total are affected by this,” she added. “There is no cure for this disease, there is no way to save the birds, all birds will die from this so we want to put them down as quickly as possible.”
The control area will remain in effect until the affected farm is fully cleaned, the euthanized turkeys are disposed of and no further cases are detected.
All turkeys at the infected farm – 29,000 birds – were put down by Wednesday night, according to the state. That depopulation needs to happen as quickly as possible so that the birds do not languish and so the virus does not have more time to spread.
The euthanized turkeys will then be disposed of onsite by composting them, a method that is approved and overseen by state and federal agencies. The barns and all equipment will all also need to be thoroughly cleaned – “eat off the floor clean,” Derrer Spears said.
Once the cleaning is complete and the disposal has reached a certain stage, the quarantine will be lifted. There are many factors involved and there is no target date to do that, the state said it likely will be about four to six weeks.
It is unclear how the Dubois County flock was infected. The avian flu viruses are fairly common in wild migratory birds and waterfowl, according to Derrer Spears, and ducks and geese that contract the disease will spread it in their droppings as they fly by.
The strain has been wreaking havoc on Asia and Europe, and also has been found in some wild birds along the East Coast. Canada recently confirmed an H5N1 bird flu in a commercial poultry operation in Nova Scotia.
This outbreak is significant because it shows that the strain has entered a migratory pathway for birds called the Mississippi Flyway, which follows the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and includes several major poultry states such as Indiana.
The last time this bird flu was found in commercial poultry in Indiana was in January 2016.
“Last time we had this, it was terrible,” Derrer Spears.
That situation similarly started with one flock and then testing showed that it had spread to nearly a dozen other flocks. Ultimately more than 400,000 birds needed to be euthanized.
The year prior, in 2015, the same strain wreaked havoc on the Midwest turkey industry and caused the largest animal-disease outbreak ever seen in the U.S. While Indiana remained largely unscathed from that national outbreak, it led to the destruction of more than 50 million birds and cost the U.S. economy more than $3 billion.