A large percentage of the people in the Midwestern U.S. egg industry were not properly prepared for the 2015 outbreak of avian influenza, and in a way, the industry failed itself, said Dr. Jill Nezworski, Blue House Veterinary.

Nezworski, who was actively involved in the avian influenza eradication effort in layer farms in Minnesota and Iowa during 2015, shared her views on the successes and failures during the outbreak while speaking at the session Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza – Lessons Learned, held January 28 at the International Production & Processing Expo (IPPE) in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Few farms in the region had catastrophe plans. I feel, in a way, the layer industry failed itself. We have many examples of farms mandating its outside crews could not help others with depopulation efforts. This delayed depopulation, particularly early in the outbreak. [It may have been] a short-term gain, but I believe it’s a long-term loss,” Nezworski said.

Nezworski also pointed out that few farms had a realistic plan on how to depopulate the birds offsite, and they had no plans for secure carcass disposal. A lot of sites had a primary plan that involved landfills, but when that was no longer an option, they were left without a back-up plan, which demonstrated the need for both a primary plan and a back-up plan.

Early detection of highly pathogenic avian influenza

The layer industry could have done a better job at detecting avian influenza early, she said. Many of the farms that were affected by avian influenza detected the virus on the basis of increased mortality, while only about a third of the affected farms detected it through active surveillance for early signs of the virus, and therefore slowed down the depopulation, sanitizing and eventual restocking processes.

There were also problems, she said, with people assuming the best when there were suspicious signs.

“It’s important to expect a few false alarms and to create a culture that it’s OK to be overly cautious and even wrong,” said Nezworski.

Clear communication vital to responding to avian flu

The importance of good communication among all people involved in an egg operation cannot be stressed enough, according to Nezworski.

“The farms that identified this disease early on had been doing an excellent job in communicating it down to every employee,” she said.

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“It was critically important to have a clear chain of command, so that hourly employees, when they identified something unusual, knew who to talk to and felt that that person they reported it to would actually do something.”

Safe and timely avian influenza diagnosis

Since many farms with suspect cases of avian influenza in 2015 were not located near laboratories or didn’t have the staff to swiftly deliver the samples to labs for a diagnosis, different methods were used.

She said that in Minnesota, couriers were used to deliver samples, and that proved to be a truly valuable service.

They were able to get the samples delivered to a lab in a more timely basis than the U.S. Postal Service or other delivery services such as United Parcel Service (UPS).

But it wasn’t just the speed that made couriers a better means of delivery. They were also well versed on biosecurity matters, whereas the other delivery personnel may not have been, she said.

Reprioritizing the farms to be depopulated

One way to help better stop the spread of avian influenza in future outbreaks is to re-establish the order in which farms should be depopulated when multiple sites are involved.

In 2015, it appeared that the depopulation of farms went in chronological order. But rather than going down the list of which operations to depopulate based on which ones had detections confirmed first, it would be a better idea to go with the largest farms and the ones in areas with the highest poultry population density first.

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