With a deadly poultry virus capable of dropping from the sky, Tennessee’s response team prepares as much for “when” rather than “if” avian influenza strikes again.
The feared highly pathogenic version of avian influenza, which migratory birds can spread, surfaced in the Mississippi Flyway in Lincoln County in March 2017. The poultry illness poses little concern to humans and even migratory birds can carry the virus with no symptoms. But, the virus’ presence proves deadly to domesticated poultry, such as chickens and turkeys, and prompts immediate depopulation and burial or composting of infected flocks to prevent its spread.
The Tennessee Department of Agriculture successfully led more than a dozen agencies in the 2017 response, which eradicated the virus within a month and contained it to two poultry farms within the original 6-mile quarantine area. Since then, Tennessee poultry farms have further strengthened biosecurity measures in a heightened attempt to prevent the virus from entering poultry houses.
“I am comfortable we can respond and control it again, but I am fearful of the chances it might hit again,” says Dr. Charles Hatcher, state veterinarian. “This is almost a new normal for us. When it can be spread by migratory waterfowl, we’re at risk every time they fly.”
Preparing for Disaster
Tennessee farms annually raise more than 175 million broilers that represent 98 percent of the world’s poultry meat genetics, Hatcher says. Certainly, the state has a robust industry to protect.
Tennessee was not affected during the historic national outbreak in 2015. However, with more than 200 cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza across much of the U.S., Tennessee rededicated focus on the virus, intensifying preparations that had been ongoing for several years. In 2015, some of the state’s response task force members served among officials in Minnesota and Iowa, the two hardest-hit states.
“When we had our outbreak here in Tennessee in 2017, we had experienced incident-management team members and field people already in the state, and that helped us,” Hatcher says. “There is nothing like living through it to gain that experience. I think we’re even more prepared should it happen again.”
Tennessee serves as an example to other states in its rapid response and collaboration. During the March 2017 outbreak in Tennessee, 51 federal staff and 19 state staff with the Department of Agriculture collaborated with contractors, growers and personnel from the state’s high-tech poultry companies.
“I think improved biosecurity preventative measures and the cooperation and communication among stakeholders are key, as are training, preparing and planning,” Hatcher says. “That’s what we’ve tried to do, and we’re going to keep doing it because we want to prepare for the next possible outbreak.”
Surveying the Poultry Scene
Tennessee’s Kord Animal Health Diagnostic Lab conducts more than 30,000 surveillance tests of poultry each year from all over the state to determine whether avian influenza is present. During the avian influenza response in early spring 2017, the lab was open seven days a week for more than a month. The lab’s membership in the National Animal Health Lab Network allows it to quickly communicate its findings to the national system.
Tennessee also carries an advantage in the fight against highly pathogenic avian influenza because the animal diagnostic lab, state veterinarian’s office and U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service operate on the same campus for rapid collaboration.
“The team effort is so significant because of the amount of resources that you might need,” Hatcher says.