Agriculture officials are warning people who raise chickens and other fowl to take precautions against a bird flu that is spreading in the United States. It hasn't hit Vermont yet, but the Vermont Agency of Agriculture is concerned that it will, and it wants Vermonters with commercial poultry farms or just a couple of backyard chickens to be prepared.
Vermont Edition spoke to Dr. Shelley Mehlenbacher, the animal health section chief at the Vermont Agriculture Agency, about what precautions can be taken to prevent the spread of this disease and how the disease will impact flocks when it reaches Vermont.
This strain of avian flu is not the same as the flu that affected birds in Asia a few years ago, Dr. Mehlenbacher clarifies, but it is highly pathogenic and can cause a large amount of bird death in a very short period of time. It's spread by wild birds, as well as by feces, and turkeys are most susceptible to this strain of influenza, followed by chickens.
"It doesn't matter whether this is your hobby or your business. It's important for everybody to observe these bio-security practices," Mehlenbacher says. "And one of them is noting if you have wild birds that come to your property, and trying to decrease reasons for them to come to your property. So, do you keep your chickens by the pond that you have that wild birds come to? Do you do you keep litter or any kind of refuse that might attract wild birds anywhere near your chickens? You want to do things to decrease the chance that wild birds, that carry the disease silently, could come to your property and spread it to your chickens."
The Agency of Agriculture is warning that "Vermont is only as protected as the least diligent poultry owner in the state," so Dr. Mehlenbacher recommends these five bio-security practices to protect birds:
1. Keep your distance. "Isolate your birds from visitors and other birds. If you bring new birds onto your farm, it's always recommended that you quarantine them for two weeks to see if they're going to show any signs of diseases."
2. Keep things clean. "Make sure that any equipment you're using is clean, i's not being contaminated by feces from other birds. And it's a good idea to use dedicated clothing and boots and when you are working with your birds, that you only use those clothes for when you're working with a bird. You're not wearing those to to fairs or exhibits or just, you know, around town."
3. Don't borrow disease from your neighbors. "Don't share tools and equipment."
4. Don't haul disease home. "If you show your birds, or if you go to other farms, make sure that things are clean when when you come back."
5. Know the warning signs. "If you see any strange activity amongst your birds, any trouble breathing, any weird neurologic signs – so, you know, trouble walking or decreased eating – you want to report that you see that. Or if there's any bird death, make sure that you report that. You can report that by calling the agency at 802-828-2421."
At this time, avian bird flu does not present a food issue, Dr. Mehlenbacher emphasizes, and it has not affected human health. "That's really important for people to understand," she says, "that it's only affecting poultry."