Researchers react to bird flu outbreak

After the outbreak earlier this year, researchers and farmers are focusing on prevention.

Olivia Johnson

More than 9 million poultry birds were killed as a result of a severe strain of highly pathogenic H5N2 avian influenza that swept through the Midwest beginning in March.
 
And though all quarantines in Minnesota farms were lifted in July, researchers at the University of Minnesota have been developing new tools for farm owners and operators to prevent more severe outbreaks, which some say was caused by inadequate prevention measures.
 
Kevin Janni, a professor and extension engineer at the University, has worked with air ventilation and quality in barns and farms for 35 years.
 
In swine barns, air has to be filtered to reduce disease outbreak, said Janni, who said he believes that air filtration could help reduce influenza in poultry barns as well.
 
Janni has been working on two concepts to ensure that animal systems such as poultry in barns are kept safe from outside variables and diseases. 
 
One method, the “Danish entry,” consists of marking an area in a poultry building where objects like clothing and equipment from outside are meant to be kept.
 
Some farms use a bench that requires employees sit with legs facing one side and remove their coveralls and boots that are worn outside. They swing their legs around to
the other side of the bench and put on coveralls and boots that are to be worn strictly inside.
 
The Danish entry concept ensures that employees in poultry barns don’t bring diseases like avian influenza to the birds they’re working with. 
 
“Anything on the inside that’s crossed that line is considered clean,” Janni said. “We’re having a trailer built that we will use to teach people how to do that Danish entry.”
 
The trailer, developed by the University, will be brought to companies and farms around the state to teach employees the method in a practice building that doesn’t contain live animals. 
 
Janni and other researchers and engineers are also developing a safer way to move poultry products and people in and out of buildings. 
 
“Eggs come out, manure comes out and we have air flow,” Janni said. “How are we going to bring them inside and make sure they’re clean? People need to be more knowledgeable and aware.”
 
Although Janni has been working on these procedures and concepts for poultry farms, he said the process will be different for every owner.
 
“Each owner and operator may need to modify their practice differently,” said Janni.
 
Wildfowl meet poultry 
 
Carol Cardona, an avian health professor, said the bird flu’s appearance in the spring wasn’t a shock, because she and other researchers had been studying highly pathogenic avian influenza for a while.
 
“We were really interested in what birds — wild birds — might be carrying viruses north in the spring,” Cardona said.
 
She said Minnesota’s lakes are home to many wild migratory waterfowl, carriers of the avian flu, which can come into contact with domestic turkeys. 
 
The interaction between wild birds and poultry can result in new, unknown emerging viruses, which is where the severe strain of influenza came from, she said.
 
Cardona has worked with a variety of avian diseases over the years and said Minnesota is unique because it has “broilers, egg layers and turkeys.” Broilers are chickens
produced for meat. There are few places in the U.S. that have all three, she said.
 
Because of the large poultry industry, Minnesota has a higher chance of these influenza outbreaks, Cardona said.
 
“One of the things that we’re doing is working with the poultry industry to help them come up with ways…to figure out how the virus might have gotten into poultry barns,”
Cardona said, “because once we figure that out then those problems can be fixed.”
 
Although 108 poultry farms were affected by influenza in March, that’s just one-tenth of all Minnesota poultry farms, said Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota
Turkey Growers Association and the Chicken and Egg Association of Minnesota.
 
“We get some influenza every year in turkeys,” Olson said. “This strain was a lot more severe.”
 
He said he thinks the response to the outbreak could have been worse if University researchers hadn’t been involved.
 
Olson said reports of influenza generally pick up in the spring.
 
“We need to better understand which wild bird families this is in,” Olson said. “As we come into next spring, we want to be able to pick this up early if it comes back.”