OUTBREAK - After a week of testing, no new cases of avian flu
By Ronald MacArthur
A case of the dreaded avian flu surfaced at a poultry farm outside of Greenwood on Feb. 9 and sent the Delmarva agricultural industry into a tailspin. A two-mile quarantine area was put in place around the two farms and a six-mile area around the infected farms was immediately placed under “containment.” Farmers, poultry processing plants, and other agri-businesses were asked to follow restrictions in an effort to halt the disease.
The disease was first confirmed on a farm on Feb. 6 near Farmington that supplies live chickens to markets in New York and northern New Jersey.
As of Tuesday, Feb. 17, state agriculture officials said that no other cases of the disease had been confirmed in this area. The cases were the first ever in Delaware. Although the disease does not pose a threat to humans, it’s deadly to chickens and can wipe out a flock in a matter of days, according to agriculture officials.
Tests on flocks began immediately. As of last Friday, University of Delaware scientists had tested chickens from 79 houses on 34 farms in the six-mile zone - all tests were negative, according to Michael T. Scuse, Delaware’s Secretary of Agriculture.
“Though I am hopeful that we are controlling this disease in Delaware poultry, I am still urging everyone to be extremely careful,” Scuse said. “All cautionary measures will stay in place for the next two weeks.”
On Monday he added that the test zone will be expanded around the six-mile zone of the two farms as a “reasonable precaution.”
On Tuesday, officials announced plans to test chickens from thousands of chicken houses across Delmarva. Teams will take throat swabs from chickens 72 hours before slaughter in every house in the the region from Camden to Salisbury, Md. north to south and from Rehoboth to Hurlock east to west. Testing will begin on Wednesday just outside the containment area and will eventually expand to cover an area roughly 50 miles by 50 miles by Friday.
The type of flu found at the first farm, H7N2, is fatal to chickens but harmless to humans. Agriculture officials feel that the same kind of flu will be confirmed at the second farm (test results were due on Tuesday).
“As from the beginning, we want to reemphasize that this situation is not a human story. It is a bird story,” said Scuse. “There is no history of risk to humans with this particular strain. Nor does this strain in any way affect the safety of eating Delmarva poultry.”
More than 73,000 chickens were destroyed on the infected farm near Greenwood (plus 10,000 on the farm near Farmington). State officials have not identified the exact location of the farm and have not been able to determine how the disease spread from the original spot.
Area poultry farmers are staying close to home, not using farm vehicles off the farm, and changing clothes when they do leave the farm. Biosecurity has become the buzzword of the day in around western Sussex County. Only critical deliveries of feed are being made to area poultry farms.
DANIEL SWARTZENTRUBBER, who owns a farm three miles from the infected area near, Greenwood, was expecting a delivery of chicks on Feb. 13 from Mountaire. But not now. “I’m not sure when we will be able to get chickens now - they are telling us four weeks, but we are not sure if that’s from today or when it’s all over,” he said.
The family has two houses for around 44,000 chickens. “At first I was glad that we didn’t have chickens, but sitting here without any income is not good because the payments are still coming in.”
Like most farmers in the area, Swartzentrubber has no idea how the disease spread.
“It’s a real mystery, but there is a lot of traffic between farms on a daily basis.”
He is complying with all of the restrictions being suggested by the Delaware Department of Agriculture, the Delmarva Poultry Industry, and the Delaware Extension Service. “But when you think of all of the possibilities, it’s scary. The only that can be done is to take the greatest risks away,” he said.
“People don’t really realize the impact the chicken industry has on this area and the trickle-down effect it has. You are talking about a lot of money,” he added.
IN A LETTER TO growers and agri-businesses, Derby Walker, cooperative extension agent for Sussex County, explained the seriousness of the situation.
“It is probably a good idea to stay off all poultry farms until there is a clearer picture of the situation. No lime spreading, fertilizer spreading or spraying in the restricted area. We need to practice strict biosecurity measures to keep the virus contained in the Greenwood-Harrington area.”
He also said that the Cooperative Extension Office on Rt. 9 near Georgetown is in “a lock down mode” and that all meetings have been canceled until at least the end of February. They have a foot wash station set up at the rear entrance.
The Lasher Lab, where bird testing is done, is located at the site. “Please don’t come over here in a truck or car that has been around a poultry farm or manure. We have birds here and we don’t want any possibility of manure being brought to our site,” he wrote.
VANCE PHILLIPS, a Laurel area farmer, who also serves on the Sussex County Council, has one house (Mountaire) with 30,000 chickens who are five weeks old.
“Everybody was holding their breath and praying that it wasn’t going to spread,” Phillips said. “After such a long time, we thought it was contained and when it was discovered pretty far away in the second flock, it shook everybody up.
“On the individual level, it’s scary,” he added. “But the bigger picture is the overall dependence of the local economy on the poultry industry. I was surprised to learn that the value of the poultry leaving Delmarva was $1.5 billion, but the real value is a multiple of three so that means that about $5 billion moves through our economy.”
He said that farmers all over western Sussex are complying with the regulations including no spreading of manure, limiting traffic to farms, and taking extra precautions to keep equipment and vehicles clean. “And servicemen are not coming to farms so farmers are having to do some extra work, but for what’s at stake, it’s not much of a price to pay.”
Phillips said that it’s a well-known fact by all in the poultry industry that live-bird markets are a “source of contamination.” He said he is surprised that regulations have not been placed on the interstate sale of poultry to live markets, but he is sure that discussion will take place now.
CRAIG TRUITT, a farmer who has property in Seaford and Laurel and has two houses on his farm on Concord Road near Seaford, said he and his wife Connie have two houses full of 50,000 six-week old birds - just two weeks from maturity and pickup.
“We are just holding our breath because we really didn’t expect any of this,” he said.
He added that farmers have been told not to spread any manure either because of the risk of spreading the disease at the same time. Truitt said that late February and early March is usually the time farmers use to spread manure in this area.
“Depending on when the warning is lifted, it might mean that the manure sits - we could have a late spreading or we could have to wait until fall.”
RALPH PALMER, of Soil Service in Seaford, said that every precaution possible needs to be taken. “Everybody is holding their breath right now, he said. “This has the potential of shutting down agriculture on the peninsula.”
Soil Service is preparing for its busy season of spreading lime and fertilizer on fields in the area. “We’ve been told not to interact with other farmers, but you can only do so much. We cannot make deliveries in the restricted area and there is no spreading in the quarantined area,” he said. If the disease spreads, businesses like Soil Service will be hurt. “It’s coming into our prime time starting the last week in February - it could be real critical for us,” he said.
As with every other business that supplies items to farmers, Hoober, Inc. in Seaford has been forced to change the way it does business. “We have been asked not to to go to the farms for deliveries,” said Alan Quillen, the parts manager. “We have to leave things at the end of driveways or make other arrangements to meet other places.
“And at the store we have a can of Lysol at the door to spray farmers’ shoes and hands,” he added. “We are also postponing most meetings we had planned with farmers or are being real cautious who we invite. We don’t want this disease to spread.”
THE DELMARVA Poultry Industry Inc. (DPI) has been ground-zero during the past two weeks. Most of the regulations, guidelines, and protocols (see related story) were established by the DPI Emergency Poultry Disease Task Force.
“The task force has been working in many directions to contain the virus,” said Bill Satterfield, executive director of DPI. “ It has established surveillance protocols and testing zones. Bird movements to chick placement schedules have been altered. Biosecurity measures have been enhanced. In addition, much of DPI’s time has been spent in updating news reporters.”
He said that task force subcommittees are meeting this week to discuss further action. “They will meet to refine plans if additional depopulation, composting, and cleaning and disinfecting are needed,” he said. “Lessons were learned from the first two positive farms and workers on these subcommittees will be briefed and trained on improved procedures.”
A cost-sharing plan was established to help cover costs of a potential disaster. The poultry industries cover the first $100,000, the Delmarva Poultry Industry covers the next $2.5 million, and Delaware taxpayers cover the next $5 million.
This area has been indirectly affected by avian flu in the past. Two years ago, the Delmarva Chicken Festival was canceled in Seaford because of a flu outbreak in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Poultry officials were worried that farmers traveling from Virginia would spread the disease to the Delmarva Peninsula.
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