An outbreak of bird flu, first identified in early February, has impacted Indiana’s poultry industry well into the winter months. The outbreak has created supply chain bottlenecks and impacted the availability of poultry products to consumers across the state.
The first case of the recent strain of avian influenza HPAI H5N1 was detected in the US on February 8, 2022 in a commercial turkey flock in Dubois County, Indiana.
While the strain has spread to various parts of the poultry industry, such as duck and egg laying, Indiana State Poultry Association president Rebecca Joniskan said the turkey farm has been hardest hit. She said that in February and March 2020, about 141,000 of the 20 million turkeys raised in the state each year were affected.
“That’s a pretty small percentage of our total production,” Joniskan said. “However, each of these farms is someone’s livelihood and the spread can be a very personal, disruptive and troubling situation.”
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Joniskan said the outbreak has had various impacts on the food supply chain and the availability of poultry products in different markets, which in turn has pushed up prices. She said poultry industries from other geographic areas have been coordinating with affected farms to meet customers’ demands.
While Indiana has not had a new case of the strain since Sept. 1, Joniskan said farmers and industries in the state are still feeling the effects. Experts fear the tribe will remain active for months to come. In previous bird flu outbreaks, the virus tends to disappear in hot months. However, that did not happen this year. Although Indiana experienced hot weather in April and saw a drop in infections, HPAI H5N1 has returned to other neighboring states in recent weeks.
“Our concern is that it will remain active into late fall and winter and into spring,” Joniskan said.
According to Joniskan, one reason why experts are taking the recent outbreak of HPAI H5N1 so seriously is the high mortality rate in the infected population. In addition to commercial poultry, the strain was present in wild bird populations in Indiana. Michelle Benavidez Westrich, director of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ fish and wildlife health program, said the strain has a high mortality rate in wildlife, too.
“This particular strain circulating this year seems to affect wild animals more than previous influenza strains,” said Benavidez Westrich. “In some states we are seeing outbreaks in wild populations leading to mass deaths.”
Benavidez Westrich said the strain’s zoonotic potential to cross species boundaries and affect various types of animals, including mammals, is a major concern for experts dealing with the outbreak. Avian flu is transmitted through bodily fluids such as saliva and feces through both direct and indirect contact with birds. According to IDNR, avian flu subtypes have affected mammals such as pigs, cats, horses, dogs, ferrets and even humans. This latest strain has also been found to be infected in red foxes in four Midwestern states.
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“If the strain mutates to a point where a human can not only infect it, but also pass it on to another human, that would be more concerning than the current state of that particular strain,” Benavidez Westrich said.
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control considers the H5N1 outbreak to pose a very low risk to public health. The CDC said people who are exposed to birds professionally or recreationally are at a higher risk of infection.
This year, only one person has tested positive for the strain. In this case, the Colorado man reported only mild symptoms and tested positive once and then negative on follow-up tests. In addition, humans cannot incur the burden of properly consuming or handling poultry products.
Denise Derrer Spears, communications director for the Indiana State Board of Animal Health, said Indiana’s BOAH has continued standard biosecurity measures on poultry farms to manage the recent outbreak. These measures include allowing only essential workers and vehicles onto the farm, providing clean clothing and disinfection at the facilities, and protecting poultry flocks from contact with wild or migratory birds.
According to Spears, the Indiana BOAH recommends farmers to be vigilant for signs of infection in their herd. If they suspect infection, they should contact a veterinarian, fill out a report form on the Indiana BOAH website, or call the Healthy Birds Hotline at 866-536-7593. The Indiana BOAH will then arrange for an expert callback and make a telephone assessment of the situation and, if necessary, dispatch a veterinarian.