When a highly contagious virus like avian influenza strikes a poultry operation, one of the worst things a producer can do is keep it a secret. Instead, poultry industry leaders stress open communication with other bird owners who may be at risk.

With all of the means of communications available in modern technology, the phone still seems to resonate as the most immediate way to get a message out.

Earlier in 2015, Minnesota became the latest state to establish a system that calls people who need to know when a positive case of avian flu has been detected.

But the idea of a calling system is not new. A poultry hotline concerning disease alerts has been in place in California, Oregon and Washington for several decades.

Calling system making a difference in Minnesota

Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association (MTGA), said his organization had a system in place over the past several decades that when a Minnesota flock tested positive for avian influenza, members would be notified via email or U.S. Postal Service.

However, prior to 2015, the state had only had to deal with low pathogenic avian influenza. But in 2015, Minnesota has had more locations with confirmed cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza than any other state.

“With the high-path avian influenza, they need to know a lot quicker than [the postal service can deliver the message] for sure, and even with email, if they don’t have a smartphone they can’t always get that message immediately,” said Olson.

School districts in Minnesota had been utilizing a “robocall” service, where when there was an announcement such as a weather-related closing or upcoming parent-teacher conferences, parents of students would get calls on their cellular phones and landline phones relating to the announcement. “We kind of took a lesson from the schools,” Olson said.

So Olson contacted his local school district and got some recommendations on companies to work with, and the organization subscribed to the service for a year.

According to Olson, with the new system, all growers on the list would get a notification when a positive avian influenza case is confirmed. Limited details on the situation would be given on the call, but phone call recipients would be asked to check the MTGA members-only website for more information. Members of the Minnesota Chicken and Egg Association also get calls.

Since the Minnesota calling system has been implemented, Olson has been getting positive feedback. Members can opt out of getting calls, but most have appeared to embrace it, even if it is delivering bad news.

“People would see through caller I.D. that I was calling, and they kind of cringed, but yet they also gave us some pretty positive feedback on it,” said Olson. “It kept them informed, and it also helped drive home the significance and the scope of what we were dealing with.”

The history of the hotline concept

The very first hotline that notified poultry industry members of a disease confirmation in the vicinity was developed in California by the now defunct California Turkey Federation, which eventually evolved into the California Poultry Federation (CPF) according to Dr. Francine Bradley, treasurer of the World’s Poultry Science Association and extension poultry specialist emerita, University of California-Davis.

The hotline, Bradley said, was established in response to an exotic Newcastle disease outbreak in the early 1970s.

The calling systems make sense, Bradley said, because a poultry company or producer can quickly know if there is a positive detection of a disease. Once notified, they can have their trucks rerouted away from an area around where the disease has been confirmed and greatly reduce the possibility of spreading the illnesses.

In the calls, Bradley said, the caller gives the location of that affected flock, (usually an intersection) species affected, the age of infected birds, the disease that was diagnosed, and the planned disposition of those birds.

The California hotline seemed to work so well, similar hotlines were soon started in Oregon and Washington, Bradley said.

To this day, the calling tree system that originated in the 1970s remains in use. When avian influenza was detected in California earlier in 2015, the system was used.

According to Debbie Murdock, executive director of the Pacific Egg & Poultry Association (PEPA) , a calling tree begins when the California state veterinarian’s office confirms a case positive and approves that calls can proceed. They limit the communications to calls and maybe an occasional fax, but do not send out email notifications, citing a balance between communicating with people in the poultry industry who would need to know while respecting the affected farms’ confidentiality. Emails are too easy to forward and possibly reach someone that does not need to see the message, Murdock added.

“If we are going to report diseases and we want people to participate, we want them to know there is some responsibility on all of the parties that are on the hotline,” she said.

In addition to PEPA members, people affiliated with the CPF and the Association of California Egg Farmers also have benefited from the use of the California poultry hotline.

Communicating across state lines

Murdock notes that at times when a disease breaks out in a California poultry operation, a call will be made to those in the poultry in bordering states such as Arizona, Oregon or Utah, provided there is reasonable reason to do so.

Olson said Minnesota is doing the same if there is reason to believe that flocks in bordering states like Iowa or South Dakota would be at risk.

Some producers initiate calls

There used to be a time when producers who had flocks affected by avian influenza or Newcastle disease were embarrassed that their farms were hit and were therefore apprehensive to share with others.

According to Murdock, when the virus hit California earlier in 2015, some didn’t wait for the hotline calls to begin.

“No one wants to hide a disease anymore. Those farmers in California made the calls to all their neighbors themselves,” she said.

Poultry disease hotlines in other areas?

Bradley, who says she is not as involved with the poultry industry as she was prior to retiring from the poultry science faculty at the University of California-Davis, still takes every opportunity to educate the public about the hotline and how it helps poultry farmers and companies with their own biosecurity, as well as its benefits to the industry as a whole.

“I always tell clients and producers that it is much better to communicate and educate than to just try to figure out where you can place blame,” said Bradley. “I have promoted this hotline around the world.”

She recently promoted the poultry hotline at the Latin American Poultry Congress, and has also taken the message of the hotline to the United Arab Emirates, which has a poultry industry that could greatly benefit from more sharing of information.

“In that part of the world they have lots of problems with disease and nobody talks with anyone. They don’t have any type of trade associations,” said Bradley. “I want to get people to get over their reluctance to share information because there are certainly more upsides than downsides.”

“I just think it’s a really good form of protection to producers around the world.”