Improved poultry disease outbreak control and disease monitoring – whether avian influenza or other infectious diseases – may be achieved using Web-based systems.

A patented Internet and smartphone app-based system to help in controlling the spread of poultry diseases is up-and-running in Ontario, Canada, with pilot projects now being arranged in other jurisdictions.

The challenges involved in controlling and monitoring disease were evident in the 2015 outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza. In 2015, spread of a highly-pathogenic avian flu strain gathered steam across the U.S., leading to the deaths of over 48 million chickens across 12 states, either directly from the disease or through precautionary euthanasia. Turkey farmers were also severely affected. In a separate incident in 2015, in one month more than 180 people across 40 states were infected with Salmonella, caused by contact with disease-carrying chickens. Avian influenza outbreaks have continued into 2016, with the depopulation of over 400,000 chickens and turkeys in Indiana in January.

Three-part system: smartphone app, database, GPS technology

The key to getting ahead of an outbreak is straightforward, but it’s easier said than done. It’s all about getting quick access to information on which farms have infections and who has been to those farms, allowing for effective quarantine. The "Be Seen Be Safe" (BSBS) system, developed in Ontario, addresses this challenge. It has three parts: an encrypted smartphone app, a secure database with analytical software and GPS technology called "geo-fencing," which is mapping the geographical boundary of a property.

Encrypted-smartphone-app

The BSBS has three parts: an encrypted smartphone app, a secure database with analytical software, and GPS technology called "geo-fencing," which is mapping the geographical boundary of a property.

Anytime anyone who regularly visits poultry farms – vets, feed and pullet delivery persons, vaccination crews, salespeople and so on – enters onto a geo-fenced poultry farm property, the app on their smartphone or tablet is automatically triggered. The farm business owner is alerted that a visitor has arrived (and this information is stored in a permanent online visitor record book that farmers can access at any time from a secure personal login). The visitor is "greeted" through the app with a welcome message. The encrypted BSBS database stores all ongoing farm visit information, which includes farm ID, visitor ID, number of farms visited in the recent past (visitor risk assessment level), time in and time out. The geo-fencing aspect means that only on-farm visits are stored, not every movement. The identity of individual visitors and farms are only accessible by authorized system administrators (such as those at an industry association) in an emergency.

In a disease outbreak, the system instantly analyzes and cross-references the entire database of visitor and vehicle movements (since vehicles may have more than one operator), starting with a specific flagged farm. Disease spread is mapped and extrapolated in real time, with factors like wind direction, wind speed, temperature, humidity and so on overlaid on the map. Farmers and visitors are immediate notified by text message that there is a problem, and they are prompted to implement quarantine and other biosecurity measures.

Poultry disease monitoring system in use in Canada

The system is being rolled out in Ontario with over 800 geo-fenced farms and over 1,200 people and vehicles, including every producer belonging to Egg Farmers of Ontario, the Ontario Broiler Hatching Egg & Chick Commission and the Turkey Farmers of Ontario. These associations have paid the first two years’ nominal cost for each farm for initial geo-fencing and monitoring, with 75 percent of that cost being reimbursed by a federal government grant.

The system’s developers report acceptance has been positive. There have been only a few people with privacy concerns, but people understand that the system is no more intrusive than signing a physical farm visitor log book. Data on visits is permanently deleted after a year.

Development of the software and the apps by several software engineers required the better part of two years. The BSBS app is available on all three main smartphone platforms:  BlackBerry, Android and IOS. The app is said to cause no battery drain as it only runs for a split-second when the device crosses a geo-fenced property, and the data exchanges are extremely small, so users won’t notice any usage increase.

Developers are exploring ways of facilitating follow-up responses to outbreaks texts sent by the BSBS. This would provide confirmation that the warning has been received and that people are acting accordingly.

Digital record of poultry farm visitors

Carol Cardona, D.V.M., Ph.D., professor in avian health at the College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota, who is an expert in surveillance for and detection of avian influenza in domestic poultry, said she sees benefits in the system. As a digital farm visit record book, the BSBS provides objective information about the actual number of visitors to a given farm and who they are, and allows farmers to possibly make adjustments.

“In terms of an outbreak, it’s would really help in trying to stop traffic to quarantine farms that are involved or are possibly,” she said. “It would also make sure everyone knows about the situation, all farm employees, so that quarantine actually works.”

The system’s developers Tim Nelson and Joel Sotomayor have also developed "Farm Health Monitor" (FHM), which permits all farmers and veterinarians in a given area to better contain and manage production-limiting diseases. Like BSBS, FHM includes a secure app where farmers and veterinarians can input information on disease symptoms and/or bird deaths. If similar information is reported on two or more farms within a given region, FHM sends out a blanket warning across the area, prompting producers and vets to start checking flocks carefully and to report as necessary. The poultry FHM app is being trialed right now, with the swine version ready for trial and a dairy version under development. The ability to upload a short video is being added.

Regarding "Farm Health Monitor," Cardona observes that there are already hotlines and phone communication trees in place for reporting bird illness and deaths, but says FHM provides another level and another way to share that information very quickly. “It does depend on everyone being on board,” she said.