U to test for bird flu under federal contract

Emily Ayshford

With the recent outbreak of avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu, in Delaware, agitations about the disease are hitting home.

Although no outbreak has recently been reported in Minnesota, a new contract with the University will help Minnesotans control the disease.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently granted the College of Veterinary Medicine a contract allowing the college to expand its surveillance of bird diseases such as avian influenza and exotic Newcastle.

Currently, poultry producers must pay for the school to perform post-mortem exams on their birds to see if they were diseased.

But under the contract, the USDA will pay for the exams, as well as fund specialized molecular testing.

Jim Collins, Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory director, said the new molecular testing will amplify viral genes in a sample, and the results will help the college “develop rapid early detection and rapid early response to these types of diseases.”

The lab currently performs about 2,100 bird post-mortem exams a year. Collins said they hope the new contract will triple that number. He said the lab also hopes to partner with local organizations such as the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.

“We hope to develop a way to increase the surveillance as a collaborative effort,” he said.

Minnesota has had about four large outbreaks of avian influenza in the last 25 years, avian health professor Dave Halvorson said. About 1,100 flocks of turkeys have been diagnosed with the disease.

Halvorson said avian influenza outbreaks have been controlled in the past by isolating the infected flock and sanitizing clothes and shoes that came in contact with it.

Birds can get 15 different subtypes of influenza, and influenza genes often mutate into different forms. Halvorson said these factors make vaccinating all birds against the disease out of the question.

None of the outbreaks in Minnesota have been of the highly pathogenic variety – such as the recent outbreak in Asia – which causes severe illness and has a high mortality rate.

The recent outbreak of avian influenza in Delaware is believed to be of the low pathogenic variety. This variety makes the birds more susceptible to other infections but is not as dangerous as the current strain in Asia, he said.

There are currently 23 confirmed cases of avian influenza in humans in Asia, and 18 people have died from the disease.