Bird flu outbreak not seen in Arkansas

Lessons learned, say state experts

The Arkansas flag is shown in this file photo.

The highly pathogenic avian influenza was confirmed in the United States in January, though no cases have been detected in Arkansas.

State officials and educators say increased security measures and awareness among poultry producers large and small has been helpful in preventing an outbreak so far this year.

The state Livestock and Poultry Commission put in place an emergency rule for avian flu earlier this year that expires on July 20, and the Commission may soon consider how to continue ensuring the safety of Arkansas poultry flocks in the future.

Arkansas has experienced three avian flu outbreaks since the state's rules regarding avian flu were first was put in place 22 years ago: in 2008, 2013 and 2015.

The 2013 and 2015 outbreaks happened in June, Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Division Director Patrick Fisk said.

More than 50 million chickens and turkeys died nationwide during the 2015 outbreak, the USDA said.

A recent University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service report said 10.4 million fewer cases were reported in June of this year in the U.S. compared with June 2015.

The strain of avian flu detected this year is different from the 2015 outbreak. This year, migratory birds like geese, wood ducks, birds of prey, scavenger birds, songbirds and other species have driven the spread, Fisk said.

In 2015, the virus proliferated more laterally via house-to-house spread through people, farm equipment, vehicles, or from farm-to-farm, said Jada Thompson, assistant professor of agribusiness in the University of Arkansas' Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness.

The state has seen an increase in security measures and enforcement, as well as preventive training, since the last avian flu outbreak, Thompson said.

"I did grow up in Arkansas and I can tell you 20 years ago, there weren't as many signs that said 'this is a poultry facility, stay out' or 'biosecurity, don't come in' and there's a lot more of those signs now. I drive out to my parents' farm and on the way out, I see all these signs that say 'don't come in, biosecure farm', just very clear about the messaging on those farms," Thompson said.

Thompson said she now sees more on-farm truck washes, which were not as prevalent in 2015, as well as more foot baths to sanitize feet.

"The emergency rule brought awareness, the constant updates of where the avian influenza was affecting what state, partners like the Poultry Federation, the industries, all the companies, the UofA Extension offices have helped us tremendously with outreach in showing everyone what they needed to do in order to keep their birds safe; so a collaborative effort was taking place to make sure Arkansas was safe and I think we did an excellent job, and I'm proud of everybody for doing what they did," Fisk said.

The Livestock and Poultry Commission unanimously approved amending the state's emergency rule regarding avian influenza to strike certain parts and add emergency language at a specially called meeting in late June, because of rising outdoor temperatures.

The amendment allows for free range poultry, which had been prohibited in an attempt to protect flocks from infected migratory birds. Fisk said poultry producers reported being affected by high temperatures and humidity in the lead up to the June Commission meeting.

"We had been getting some calls and notices that some of our free-range sector birds were actually going through a little bit of heat stress and they were actually losing birds to the heat that we don't usually see this time of year," Fisk said.

Fisk said some free range and backyard poultry producers may not be as prepared for their birds to handle severe summer heat as a traditional confined poultry house, which has cooling and where fans can circulate air through the structure. Producers will hopefully be more prepared next year, Fisk said.