U.S. avian flu crisis highlighted importance of traceability

The H2N5 virus spread across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa last spring, forcing millions of birds to be destroyed

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The tragedy of a deadly, contagious disease sweeping across the American Midwest reaffirmed the need for traceability.

“One of the things we learned was the importance of knowing where our poultry and livestock are,” Stacey Schwabenlander told the National Institute of Animal Agriculture’s annual meeting, which was held earlier this year in Kansas City.

The senior veterinarian with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and an identification co-ordinator recounted the frustration and exhaustion in dealing with highly pathogenic avian influenza from March 5 to July 28 last year.

The H2N5 virus struck more than nine million birds on 110 farms in 23 Minnesota counties. Control zones with a 10 kilometre radius were established around each affected farm as the disease swept through the region.

More than 13,000 sq. kilometres were eventually placed under a control area. All premises in those zones were suddenly caught up in the epidemic, and state and federal officials worked around the clock to control and monitor movement as well as test farms.

As stricken birds died within hours of infection, everyone realized that the state traceability system with premise identification registrations was not good enough.

“Until you are using it, you don’t realize it is not quite as perfect as you thought,” she said.

Permits were needed to move in and out of the control area so that unaffected farms could continue doing business.

Nothing should have moved in a control area without officials knowing about it, but tracking down farm locations and correcting contact information and the type of facilities became a management nightmare.

Tested farms that were ruled negative still had to be verified clear of disease. Until that happened, they could not obtain movement documents.

Testing was often slowed because the only diagnostic laboratory was in St. Paul, a considerable distance from the epicentre of the disease. Federal funding has since been granted to build another laboratory.

Besides making sure premises are now registered, templates for all movement documents have been created to prevent future paperwork slowdowns.

Unaffected locations still needed to be able to move poultry to processing plants and there were times when birds were left waiting on trucks as paperwork was delayed.

As the crisis deepened, state officials developed an interactive map that was updated three to four times a day to see if a premise was in a specific zone and what their permit requirements would be.

Extra help came from out of state, and everyone received a crash course in biosecurity.

“We all know biosecurity is key and critical. We learned this front and centre,” she said. “You can’t get lazy, and we had to work hard to remember what the key pieces were and make sure that we were not spreading this disease.”

Minnesota is clear of H2N5 now, but traceability efforts continue to be improved so that officials and farmers will be ready the next time a disaster strikes.

A real time interactive map with password protection has been developed. It includes navigation, Google map features and aerial photographs to show farms, road maps, premise type, latitude and longitude and disease status.

All poultry operations now have a personal identification number, but not all livestock operations have signed on, she said later.

Other states caught up in this epidemic faced similar problems.

Wisconsin has had mandatory premise identification for all livestock and poultry sites since 2006. There is no cost to register, and it must be renewed every three years, said state veterinarian Paul McGraw.

The idea is for a quick data turnaround during an emergency so that people can be informed within a day if their premises are inside a disease control zone.

The Wisconsin livestock industry is worth $9 billion, and although it is mostly a dairy state, avian influenza did strike 10 premises and destroyed 1.7 million birds.

Wisconsin has 19,173 registered premises with poultry, and 100 were probably within a control zone.

“As soon as we had a presumptive positive, we were able to pull that information out of the database and send a letter out to all those premises on that day,” he said.

Iowa had 31 million birds affected by the disease, and traceback was difficult, said state veterinarian Dave Schmitt.

The disease dragged on for more than two months in 18 counties.

Premises registration was important, but it is a voluntary program. However, members of the commercial poultry sector have been more diligent in registering be-cause their business is connected to other programs.

“We did find out we could pull out our registered premises, but it still involved legwork to find all ex-posed backyard flocks,” he said.

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