Delaware leads the world in dealing with deadly bird flu. That's good news for the local economyï¿½and for your respiratory system.
Virus isolations for avian flu are
performed routinely at the Allen
Laboratory in Newark.
Playing Chicken with Disease
Who will flinch first? Not Delaware, which leads the world in dealing with deadly bird flu. Thatï¿½s good news for the local economyï¿½and for your respiratory system.
Somewhere in Delaware a chicken is getting sick.
That chicken might be coughing or sneezing or showing ruffled feathers, but otherwise, itï¿½s clucking about its regular business, just like any one of us may do when weï¿½re on the verge of a cold.
One sick chicken may not seem like a big problem. But if that chicken is one of 269 million cramped and perfectly homogeneous white broilers with an entire stateï¿½s economic welfare depending on them, the cost of one sick chicken could be astronomical.
Best get that bird to a doctor.
Four major integrated poultry companies in Delawareï¿½Mountaire Farms, Perdue Farms, Allenï¿½s Family Foods and Tysonï¿½sï¿½make up a $1.6 billion industry. Most of the value of broilers in Delaware goes into the stateï¿½s economy one way or another, making up 71 percent of the cash farm income. All in all, broiler chickens are worth more than $739 million to Delawareï¿½s economy.
Poultry farms dot the Delmarva Peninsula, where broiler (or meat) chickens are raised. If one chicken gets sick with a strain of avian influenza, itï¿½s almost certain that the virus will spread.
ï¿½Whenever you grow large numbers of a living thingï¿½people, chickens, whateverï¿½in close proximity, it will be very efficient for production. But you have a population at a health risk, if anything were to come down the road and infect the population,ï¿½ says Dr. Jack Gelb, director of the Avian Biosciences Center at the University of Delaware. ï¿½The consequences could be devastating.ï¿½
In Delaware, chicken is far and away the largest agricultural product. Last year the state produced more than 269 million broilers, which outnumber local humans about 343-1. Almost all of the corn and soybeans grown in the state go toward chicken feed. In essence, chicken is not only key to state agriculture, but to the entire economy.
A few years ago, the world began fearing the characters H5N1, a potentially deadly strain of Influenza A, which spread in pockets of Asia and northeast Africa. Of the few avian influenza strains that have crossed the species barrier to infect humans, H5N1 has caused the largest number of harmful disease and death in humans. Unlike a normal seasonal flu, with mild symptoms like fever and respiratory problems, the disease caused by H5N1 is considerably nastier, with a high fatality rate. If something like the H5N1 virus were to hit Delaware livestock, it would spell disaster.
Delaware has long since realized this possibility and is thoroughly on the ball. Specifically, the University of Delaware, in conjunction with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, is the nationï¿½s leader in avian bioscience. The rest of America and the world have taken notice.
Two UD campuses, one in Newark and one in Georgetown, lead the stateï¿½s efforts in avian research and diagnostics. Both arms are critical to protecting and improving Delaware agriculture. In Georgetown is the Lasher Laboratory, under the direction of Dr. Daniel Bautista and staffed by scientists, veterinarians and technicians whose chief job is to test and diagnose sick chickens. Last year Lasher Lab took a gander at 9,640 birds, testing for a variety of illnesses. (In reality, few of the known avian flu strains pose a serious risk to humans, so donï¿½t panic at your next family barbecue.)
ï¿½The poultry industry brings in sick chickens for evaluation, just like you or I would go to a doctor,ï¿½ Gelb says. ï¿½If you bring a flock of birds into the Lasher Lab, we work them up for everything they might have, and we bring the results back to you so you know how you might manage that flock differently in the future to cut losses.ï¿½
From each sick bird, the lab collects a sample. From a variety of bacteria and viruses, including avian influenza, the lab makes a diagnosis. By studying the genes of the most common virus, UD scientists crafted letter-specific, genetic-based tests, such as polymerase chain reaction, that detect bird flu. For avian influenza, Lasher Lab also performs surveillance on normal, healthy poultry flocks prior to transport and processing.
Detailed diagnosis is a free service provided by the state, which matches federal funding for health projectsï¿½and then spends more. The University of Delaware receives $1.2 million per year from the state in support of poultry diagnostics and research. It is important to understand that in Delaware, the UD is committed to performing all of the poultry diagnostics (including avian influenza surveillance testing) that in most other states is carried out by their departments of agriculture.
ï¿½State legislators know how important the poultry is to the stateï¿½s well-being,ï¿½ Gelb says. ï¿½Other states charge for this service, but it works well for us in Delaware.ï¿½
Such streamlined and efficient testing comes from years of painstaking research to uncover the underlying mechanisms of chicken genetics and the viruses that infect them. Faculty and graduate students in Newark have paved the way to cracking the chicken genome. The goal is to look for genetic defects that result in diseases and to actually improve the genetic lines of chickens to make them disease resistant.
ï¿½To get there, you have to do a lot of basic research, such as how different genes interact and so-called host-genes of the animals,ï¿½ Gelb says. ï¿½We also study genes of important disease agents. Both are very important for diagnostics.ï¿½
An airtight plan like the one currently in place didnï¿½t develop overnight. Itï¿½s been more than 20 years in the making, says Michael Scuse, Delaware Secretary of Agriculture, and there have been plenty of rough patches along the way. One occurred three years ago, when avian influenza reared its ugly head in Delaware.
In February 2004 an index case of bird flu struck a flock of chickens raised in a small farm outside Harrington. The problem laid not so much with the birds themselves but their destination: a live bird market near New York. Living, breathing livestock is still prevalent in some ethnic groups, and many metropolitan cities have live animal markets that process the beast or fowl on site, often for a large premium.
Because they feature a wide array of species and sources, many live markets are rife with avian influenza. Experts argue, but many think the dangerous H5N1 strain could finally appear in America at a live market.
Needless to say, the state was a little anxious about these particular sick chickens. Veterinarians took some samples of the sick birds. They came back positive for H7N2 influenza, a low pathogenic strain for birds, but one thatï¿½s been found to infect humans. The state had to move fast.
ï¿½Right away we alerted the necessary officials within the state and federal government and the poultry industry,ï¿½ Gelb says. Lasher Labs then overnighted the samples to the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, for confirmationï¿½but they couldnï¿½t wait to hear back.
Law enforcement and state officials moved quickly to quarantine the farm, preventing further spread of the virus. Then they did something no one else in the country had thought of.
They euthanized the infected chickens with an effective and humane method, using firefighterï¿½s foam. The birds were then composted on site instead of being taken to a landfill or an incinerator. It sounds like a simple and unspectacular step, but itï¿½s actually quite ingenious. ï¿½Composting creates natural heat from oxygen and a carbon source, and attains a temperature of 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit in about three days,ï¿½ Gelb says. ï¿½Avian influenza is a virus that is susceptible to heat.ï¿½
They not only slowed the spread of avian flu, they killed it.
ï¿½I think weï¿½re the best in the nation at dealing with this type of thing,ï¿½ Scuse says. ï¿½When you look at our response plan compared to others, it far exceeds anything else out there. Ours is better than the national response plan.ï¿½
In 2002 bird flu broke in Virginiaï¿½s Shenandoah Valley, infecting hundreds of farms and destroying a lot of animals. The virus continued to spread because dead, infected birds were moved off farms and into landfills or incineration facilities. Delaware has no such issues, thanks mainly to an emergency poultry disease task force of vets, lab techs, industry heads and DNREC officials.
ï¿½We knew we all had to work together, and we had a mechanism to discuss whatï¿½s going to happen,ï¿½ Gelb says. ï¿½Who goes on that farm? How should they be dressed? Little nitty-gritty stuff like that.ï¿½
ï¿½Iï¿½m as confident as I can possibly be with our ability to handle an outbreak,ï¿½ Scuse says. ï¿½Avian influenza can very easily take off and can be hard to control. If anybody has the ability to diagnose it and contain it, we do.ï¿½
The rest of America has caught on to the Delaware model and is passing it on to other countries. Last year UD forged a relationship with Romania, which has suffered from bird flu outbreaks since H5N1 was found at a farm near the Danube River in 2005. Delaware and Romanian scientists will hook up via video conferencing to exchange information and technical training.
Tens of millions of birds have died of H5N1 influenza and hundreds of millions of birds have been slaughtered and disposed of to limit the spread of H5N1. There have been 321 cases of H5N1 in humans and 194 human deaths worldwide since 2003.
Countries such as Indonesia and Taiwan have looked to Delaware for ways to improve poultry health and better methods of depopulation and disposal, Scuse says.
ï¿½If we have bird flu tomorrow, those are the methods weï¿½ll use,ï¿½ Gelb says. ï¿½And itï¿½s been used in other states who have seen an outbreak. Since 2004 weï¿½ve been testing every flock, and itï¿½s a massive effort frankly. But between the surveillance and these rapid response plans, we feel we have the tools to find avian influenza and deal with it.ï¿½