LEBANON, Pa. — As the avian influenza outbreak begins to wind down, State Veterinarian Kevin Brightbill is reflecting on how Pennsylvania fared, and looking into how to handle future animal diseases.
Brightbill gave a keynote speech at the Keystone Pork Expo and Poultry Progress Day on June 22 at the Lebanon Valley Expo Center.
Pennsylvania limited its outbreak to 17 farms and 4.2 million birds — a relatively successful response, in Brightbill’s mind, given the scale of poultry production in the state.
Brightbill credits the result to the farmers and to the resources available from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and USDA.
“We’ve been blessed in Pennsylvania to only have 17 affected flocks,” he said. “And those flocks were caught very, very early because we had committed producers that were watching closely.”
Brightbill stressed the importance of biosecurity, and not just in case of avian influenza.
“Biosecurity is not just for the birds,” Brightbill said. “It’s also for the pigs and any other agricultural species that is susceptible to disease, which they all are.”
And biosecurity plans aren’t only important to keep diseases off the farm, but also to get approved to continue business in case a farm ends up in a control area surrounding a quarantined farm.
Brightbill said that Pennsylvania has led the nation in permits issued to facilitate business continuity, and much of that comes back to farms having approved biosecurity plans.
“Whether we’re talking about high path AI or African swine fever, we need to know that you have a plan. When this high-consequence disease comes, how are you going to deal with it?” Brightbill said. “We really encourage people to think ahead, because you can make more sound decisions ahead of time than you can in the heat of the moment.”
Though avian influenza numbers are trending downward — the last on-farm detection in the U.S. was on June 14 and the last in Pennsylvania was June 2 — the disease might be here to stay because the current strain is adapted to wild birds.
Brightbill said 84% of case transmissions came from wild birds, both migrating birds and permanent residents.
In Pennsylvania, wild ducks, turkey vultures, Canada geese, red-tailed hawks and a bald eagle have all died from this strain of avian influenza. Past strains infected wild birds but didn’t cause mortality.
“Those are native species to Pennsylvania, and that’s an indication that this virus is going to be around here for a little while,” Brightbill said.
The current avian influenza outbreak is the largest in the nation in terms of farms affected, with 372 confirmed flocks.
The 2015 outbreak, which centered in the Midwest, saw over 50 million birds depopulated, while today’s outbreak has affected just over 40 million birds.
Avian influenza last hit Pennsylvania in 1983 and 1984, when 17 million birds were depopulated. The state’s losses were a quarter of that this year.
“This is the largest animal health disease outbreak in United States history and in Pennsylvania history,” Brightbill said. “We are very, very fortunate that we have not had the death loss of 1983.”
Brightbill credits the significantly lower death toll to the proactive nature of the farmers, the lab system, and the state and federal response, much of which did not exist in the 1980s.
“I’m happy to tell you that we do seem to be on a downward trend nationally,” Brightbill said.
Though avian influenza seems to be in the review mirror, African swine fever may be on the horizon.
“The risk is becoming more imminent day by day,” Brightbill said.
The Western Hemisphere was believed free of the disease until the Dominican Republic reported it in July 2021. It has since been detected in neighboring Haiti.
“You may not realize it, but from the tip of the Everglades to Haiti, it’s only 500 miles,” Brightbill said.
If African swine fever reached the U.S., Brightbill said the response would be similar to that for avian influenza. Both diseases are highly transmissible, have high mortality rates and have no cure.
As with avian influenza, fast action would be critical to confirm testing and establish quarantine zones.
Testing labs operate 24/7, so as soon as a farmer sees signs of sickness, reporting it should be the No. 1 priority.
“If you suspect a disease, we’re here to help. We’re not here to condemn,” Brightbill said.