VIDEO: Tough lessons rise from avian influenza outbreak
WILLMAR -- When highly pathogenic avian influenza was first detected on the West Coast in December of 2014, those preparing for its arrival in Minnesota expected the call to action here to come in two to three years.
WILLMAR - When highly pathogenic avian influenza was first detected on the West Coast in December of 2014, those preparing for its arrival in Minnesota expected the call to action here to come in two to three years.
“That call came March 15 and we finally went home August 15,’’ said Michael Starkey, who led the incident command post for the Minnesota Board of Animal Health in Willmar during the outbreak. “It was a very long, very challenging event. Very intense.’’
The lessons of the outbreak are still being learned, but many changes are already being made based on what is known now. Starkey and others involved in managing the response in Minnesota and Iowa spoke Thursday in Willmar about those changes and also about the questions that remain unanswered.
They were part of a panel discussion at the daylong Animal Science Conference hosted on the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar. The annual event features expert speakers in the animal agriculture industry.
The most important change in the response to avian flu going forward is the effort to toughen biosecurity measures at turkey and poultry operations.
“The security practices we used in the past were not working,’’ said Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and of the Chicken and Egg Association of Minnesota. “We had some very high-level, biosecurity farms that this virus got into. There is not a silver bullet out there that’s going to be the one answer.”
He said it will require a “combination of things” to get and stay ahead of it.
That combination of tools will eventually include an expanded diagnostic laboratory in Willmar. It will speed up testing.
More infrastructure is also being assembled to speed up the process of identifying affected flocks and euthanizing them. While the St. Paul testing laboratory worked hard to keep up with the tens of thousands of tests needed during the outbreak, there were challenges with the premises identification system used to get the results to the appropriate people, speakers said.
There also was not enough equipment to euthanize flocks as quickly as needed. At the start of the outbreak, the state had only one foamer. “We were definitely flat-footed there,’’ Starkey said.
The goal now is to move much more quickly: A flock should be euthanized within 24 hours of the disease being confirmed, he said.
The disease proved to be worse than many had anticipated. “I don’t think that early on we knew how transmissible and what a deadly agent we were dealing with,’’ said Dale Lauer, assistant director with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.
He said the command post was receiving reports of flocks in which birds died at rates as high as 50 an hour.
Lauer said an important, early lesson in the outbreak was how quickly the disease could inadvertently be spread.
“We discovered this disease can move around quite easily if you are not careful with biosecurity, cleaning and disinfecting trucks, watching your traffic patterns,’’ he said.
Many believe that airborne transmission played a role in its spread as well. In some Iowa egg laying barns, the first birds infected by the disease were located near interior vents, according to Randy Olson, executive director of the Iowa Poultry Association.
It is believed that wild birds are the repository for the disease. It is still not known which birds or other wildlife are harboring or transmitting the disease. Minnesota still needs to learn how it survives in the wild, said Steve Olson.
There are vaccines that will be added to the mix of tools to control the disease, but speakers at Thursday’s event said they see their use as only a “last resort’’ option. There is the challenge of having the right strain of vaccine available. There is no way to know if the disease will return and, if so, that it will be the same H5N2 strain.
And once a vaccine is put into use, it would signal to overseas buyers that the U.S. does not have control over the disease, noted Randy Olson.
At this point, the disease has been effectively stomped out since June in Minnesota. Producers are restocking barns, and the industry is moving forward.
One of the lessons of the outbreak was that the testing and protocols for disease control in the food chain had proven their value, speakers noted. Turkeys at unaffected barns were tested and safely brought to market throughout the outbreak, they said.
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