Bird Flu 2022: What You Should Know
Infected wild waterfowl rarely show avian flu symptoms.
The recent outbreak of the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu virus in the United States and Canada, “bird flu 2022,” is a reason for immediate concern. Highly lethal and easily transmitted, this particular strain of influenza can cause severe illness, especially in chicken and turkey flocks. The resulting mortality losses can reach 75 to 100% within days. Currently, there are no approved avian influenza vaccines or medications available within the United States. Utilizing sound biosecurity strategies when dealing with your flock and being extremely observant of the condition of individual birds are currently the surest methods to protect your poultry from contracting and spreading this disease.
This strain of avian flu virus can wreak havoc, and cause painful, agonizing deaths to the birds it infects. Sick chicken symptoms include swelling of the head and neck, respiratory distress, hemorrhaging within the respiratory and digestive tracts, and neural impairment are just a few of the more extreme, destructive results that do occur.
Because the chicken disease is so contagious, and no antiviral treatment is currently available, depopulation of entire, infected flocks is usually necessary to stop the rapid and unbridled spread to other flocks. This is why taking extreme care to shelter and protect your birds from this and other related viruses is so important.
I was fortunate to receive valuable input for this article from two highly credentialed and knowledgeable professionals in the areas of Avian Health and Disease. A sincere thanks go to Dr. Teresa Morishita, Professor of Poultry Medicine and Food Safety, at the College of Veterinary Medicine, Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona California, and Dr. Matt Koci, Professor of Immunology, Virology and Host-Pathogen Interactions, at the Prestage Department of Poultry Science, North Carolina State University.
Where is Bird Flu 2022 Currently Being Found?
The current, elevated numbers of the H5N1 avian flu virus, also known as “bird flu 2022,” began to show up in waterfowl, in late December of 2021 and January of 2022, in the Atlantic Flyway, on the East Coast of the United States. At the writing of this report, infected waterfowl have been found in North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Georgia. Dr. Morishita shared that there have been reports of the virus being isolated from seagulls in Canada, and those in the Great Lakes region should take precautions.
According to Dr. Morishita, the current H5N1 strain we are seeing is not native to North America. H5N1 and related sub-strains are widely spread throughout various regions of Eurasia. The current finding of this virus, in waterfowl on the East Coast, is believed to have come from birds that migrated via the Atlantic Flyway.
This extremely lethal virus is easily transmitted to domestic chickens and turkeys, and other closely-related gallinaceous birds. Disease outbreaks in commercial flocks of both broiler chickens and turkeys have been found in Kentucky and Indiana. Recent outbreaks were also found in two home flocks in these regions, one flock on Long Island, New York, and most recently in Maine. The regions of spread appear to be rapidly expanding.
Waterfowl: A Known Viral Host
According to Dr. Koci, wild waterfowl are known to be reservoirs and carriers of numerous strains of avian influenza viruses. Prevalent in their feces and nasal secretions, the viruses are easily spread. Because of this, various government agencies, both at the federal and state levels, monitor and test waterfowl year-round for viruses they may be carrying.
A common misperception many people have, when reading a news article about a new case of avian flu being found in migratory waterfowl, is that sick and dying ducks were found lying around a particular body of water, taken to a lab for testing, and found to be positive for avian flu. Rarely is this ever the case. According to Dr. Koci, waterfowl rarely show any sign of illness when infected with avian flu strains.
A Little Information About Avian Influenza Viruses
All cases of influenza, whether found in humans or other animals, are caused by viruses found in the Orthomyxoviridae virus family. This family group is divided into seven separate genera or types. Four of these contain influenza viruses. These are designated as Types A, B, C, or D.
All known strains of influenza that infect poultry, including the H5N1 strain, belong to the Type A group. This group, or genus, contains numerous influenzas strains, all designated by the letters H and N in their names. H stands for hemagglutinin, and N stands for neuraminidase. These are two proteins, or antigens, on the virus’s surface, which help it attach to host cells. The numbers 5 and 1 refer to the subtype of hemagglutinin or neuraminidase involved.
Many viral strains are broken down into more variations or genotypes. Most Type A strains can infect wild and domestic birds, including waterfowl and poultry. Some of the strains affecting poultry, such as H5N1, are very virulent, highly contagious, and very lethal. Mortality in flocks affected by the H5N1 strain often reaches 75% or higher. Strains like these are referred to as High Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). However, most of the A-type strains affecting poultry are Low Pathogenic Avian Influenza strains (LPAI) and may cause temporary illness and lethargy, from which the birds usually recover.
According to Dr. Morishita, “These Low Pathogenic strains should never be taken lightly. They should still be regarded as potentially dangerous. Because viruses have the ability to change and mutate rapidly, these low pathogenic strains can readily mutate into more serious strains with high pathogenic potential. Flock owners should always be observant and consider any illness in their birds as a potentially serious matter.”
Why are Avian Flu Viruses So Difficult to Eradicate?
Dr. Koci discussed some of the problems faced in trying to control various strains of avian flu viruses: “There are currently sixteen known H-antigen subtypes, and nine known N subtypes, among the influenza viruses found in wild waterfowl. This makes keeping track of avian influenza viruses especially difficult. The different influenza proteins can mutate, changing each protein just enough that the immune system doesn’t recognize it as well as it did before. But influenza viruses have an extra trick most other viruses don’t have. Suppose two different subtypes of influenza infect the same animal simultaneously. In that case, they can swap gene elements like trading cards so that the virus that comes out has a combination of genes from either parent. This combination of gene mutation and gene rearrangement leads to virtually unlimited potential for new strains.”
What Should I Do to Keep My Birds Safe?
During this “bird flu 2022” outbreak, one of the first steps, according to Dr. Morishita, is to minimize your flock’s contact with wild birds. These wild birds can be hosts of unwanted and potentially severe viruses, including avian influenza. This may mean building a bird-proof covering over an existing run, closing in areas with clear plastic, or covering with a smaller-gauge mesh that does not allow access to smaller birds. It also means that free-ranging may need to be reconsidered, at least for now.
“Just like us when we are sick and don’t feel well, a bird’s behavior will also change and give off signs,” says Dr. Morishita. “Observation of individual birds in your flock is very important. You should look for certain things and ask certain questions. ‘Has behavior changed? Has eating or drinking decreased? Has egg-laying slowed? Does a bird have ruffled feathers with an obvious lack of preening? Is there lethargy?’ All of these things,” she says, “are signs that something is wrong.” Other things to observe, according to Dr. Morishita, are feces. Is there diarrhea, or is it an abnormal color? Is there blood in the fecal material? Gastrointestinal issues will often exhibit in abnormal fecal discharge. Listen to the breathing. Is there coughing, sneezing, or a rattling sound when they breathe? All of these are tell-tale signs of illness. Sick birds should be isolated, and testing of the entire flock should be done. Seek the advice of your veterinarian or the local cooperative extension service. All states have cooperative extension services and agents to help with such cases.
Biosecurity issues, at this time, are critical. As much as we like people to admire our birds, now may not be the time to bring visitors carrying unknown pathogens into your backyard to admire your chickens. Just like you would not knowingly bring deadly germs home to your family, stop and think how you could carry flu viruses and other germs to your chickens or other poultry. You may not want to wear the same boots or shoes into your chicken run that you just wore on a hike around a local lake to see the ducks. And as Dr. Morishita also brought up, if you are a waterfowl hunter, do not wear the same jacket out to the chicken pen you just wore yesterday when you brought in your prized ducks or geese from the truck.
As redundant as it may be, hand washing may be just as important in maintaining your poultry’s health as it is in maintaining your health. The use of antiviral disinfectants approved for poultry on surface areas and equipment has also been beneficial.
Dr. Koci strongly reiterated the importance of quarantining any new birds in an area away from your regular poultry area before adding them to your flock. A minimum period of 21 days is recommended, with 30 days preferable.
Some biosecurity measures may seem like overreach. But the ease with which “bird flu 2022” spreads, the rapid and devastating toll it can take on entire flocks, and the fact that there are currently no antiviral drugs to fight this particular strain make extreme caution a wise idea.
This critical and timely article has been made available online, and free for all readers, before it appears in print. It will run in the June/July 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry.
You can track the list of HPAI cases in wild birds here:
And domestic birds here: