Farmer with infected birds: Avian flu ‘always a fear’

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
A worker wearing a contamination suit was carted Friday afternoon to a Dubois farm confirmed to be the location of the first case of bird flu in the United States since June. The farm is owned by Steve Kalb and his father, Dan. The birds are property of Farbest Foods.

By JASON RECKER and WYATT STAYNER
jrecker@dcherald.com
wstayner@dcherald.com

Dubois County has the first case of confirmed bird flu in the United States since June.

Purdue Extension Educator Ken Eck confirmed today there is a case of avian flu in Dubois County, and Dubois farmer Steve Kalb said this afternoon the birds were raised on a farm run by he and his father, Dan. The birds are property of Farbest Foods.

In a prepared statement released Friday night by Farbest President Ted Seger, Seger said Farbest discovered this case of bird flu as a result of its ongoing screening and surveillance testing of avian flu and other poultry diseases.

“Farbest Farms and the turkey industry are working closely with state and federal officials to keep the public informed and to be sure the best possible steps are being taken to protect the public and animal health,” Seger said.    

Steve Kalb said he learned Thursday of the infection. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Indiana Board of Health has taken over the process at Kalb’s farm along East Dubois Road Northwest just outside of town. Kalb and his father had about 60,000 turkeys. On Friday, state and federal officials said crews will establish a 6.2-mile testing area around the farm, in addition to quarantining Kalb’s operation and killing the birds, which the USDA said will not enter the food system.

“We can assure the public that there has been no impact on the safety of our food products,” Seger said. “The Center for Disease Control considers the risk from this HPAI H7N8 infection to be low. The quick detection by our surveillance protocol has worked as intended and will help protect our flocks and keep our food safe.”

The USDA has not seen any additional cases in the local area from testing so far.

Kalb said he and his father — the only two employees of the operation — take biosecurity precautions such as wearing special boots and coveralls and disinfecting the farm’s structures.

“(Avian flu is) always a fear in everyone’s mind,” said Kalb, who is who is also the Dubois Volunteer Fire Department fire chief.

This flu — H7N8 — is different from strains that killed millions of birds across the U.S. last year, according to the USDA. It also marks the first commercial flock in Indiana to receive bird flu. While the county dodged outbreaks last year, Dubois County does lie in the Mississippi flyway, a migratory path for birds, and that can lead to wild migratory birds leaving the virus in the vicinity of birds at local farms.

 “We understand that people are concerned,” said Dubois County Health Department Director Donna Oeding. “We are working closely with state and federal partners to prevent the spread of avian flu and protect those who work with poultry in Dubois County and across the state. Avian influenza does not present a food safety risk. Poultry and eggs are safe to eat. The Centers for Disease Control considers the risk of illness to humans to be very low.”

Kalb, 43, said he’s unsure how the virus made its way into his farm, which began when Dan Kalb started it in 1977 and expanded when Steve joined his father in 1993.

“Not sure we’ll ever know,” he said.

To avoid the risk of spreading the virus, Kalb hasn’t left his farm, where a decontamination zone has been set up near the end of his driveway. Dr. T.J. Myers, an associate deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said crews at the farm hoped to have all of the birds destroyed within 24 hours of the diagnosis.

“It is a significant virus that does need an immediate response to contain it and prevent spread to other facilities,” Myers said. “Since the outbreak last year, a lot of good work to strengthen preparatory efforts and biosecurity has happened.”

The USDA said today that after several hundred birds died, a company veterinarian delivered samples from the infected flock to the Purdue University Animal Disease Diagnostics Laboratory, which is part of a USDA laboratory network.

In a prepared statement, Gov. Mike Pence added, “Indiana is one of the largest poultry states in America, and I have directed all relevant agencies to bring the full resources of the state of Indiana to bear on containing and resolving the issue as quickly as possible. Multiple state agencies have been heavily focused for nearly a year on the necessary steps in this type of event, including the State Board of Animal Health, Indiana State Department of Agriculture, Indiana Department of Homeland Security, Indiana Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana State Poultry Association and several private sector partners.

“Hoosiers can be assured that we are taking all precautions to contain the situation and minimize the effects to Indiana’s robust poultry industry.”

Indiana’s ranks fourth nationally in turkey production, first in duck production, third in eggs, and is a significant producer of broiler chickens, according to an Indiana Joint Information Center press release. The poultry industry employs more than 14,000 Hoosiers and is valued at $2.5 billion. For the sake of the economy in Dubois County and the state, Kalb hopes the virus is contained.

“(If it spreads), it’s going to be a big hit for the county, the state, the whole industry,” Kalb said. “I’m positive on that. If we keep it contained here, that’s bad enough. But if it does start to spread like wildfire, it’s definitely detrimental to the county and the state.”

Researchers will work to develop a profile of the influenza strain next week and examine of how it mutated to become highly pathogenic. Epidemiologists will try to pinpoint how the virus made it onto the farm. Wild birds that stop at the farm are a possibility.

“There’s no single thing you can point to and say it’s the one and only thing,” Myers said. “It’s generally a single-point entry to a farm, then farm-to-farm spread. Epidemiology has shown a correlation with increased traffic on and off farms.”

Backyard poultry owners are encouraged to be aware of the signs of avian influenza and report illness and/or death to the USDA Healthy Birds Hotline at 866-536-7593. Callers will be routed to a state or federal veterinarian in Indiana for a case assessment. Dead birds should be double-bagged and refrigerated for possible testing.

Signs of infection include sudden death without clinical signs; lack of energy or appetite; decreased egg production; soft-shelled or misshapen eggs; swelling or purple discoloration of head, eyelids, comb or hocks; nasal discharge; coughing; sneezing; incoordination; and diarrhea.

A great resource for backyard bird health information is online at www.healthybirds.aphis.usda.gov.

The Evansville Courier & Press contributed to this story.




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