Hens in the henhouse

Safeguarding animal health means safeguarding our economy, protecting human health, and ensuring a safe, reliable food supply.

As an animal agriculture state, investments in animal science education and research, veterinarian medicine, and the Bureau of Animal Health and the Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System (PADLS) are essential to protecting U.S. livestock and poultry industries from animal diseases.

These investments prevent diseases from becoming full blown outbreaks.

Recent experiences illustrate this network’s importance and complexity. In late 2020 and early 2021, as part of routine testing at live bird markets in southeast Pennsylvania, birds tested positive for a low pathogenic strain of avian influenza. It’s a strain that one species might tolerate, but it could “reassort,” changing into a strain harmful to other bird species.

These birds are safe to eat, so the market was ordered to sell down and then close for cleaning and disinfection.

The market was tested with swabs which were sent to PADLS to make sure the virus was gone before reopening.

Trucks that transport birds to the market are routinely required to be cleaned and disinfected, and bird types that test positive at markets are traced back to their farm of origin whenever possible, and the flock is tested and may be quarantined until it tests negative.

This intense process is more common than you would imagine.

“We need to have a proactive approach instead of a reactive approach,” said Dr. Kevin Brightbill, Pennsylvania’s state veterinarian. “The three labs of PADLS routinely run surveillance samples for the state. We are not just waiting for a sick bird report, we are monitoring both healthy and sick birds for presence of virus. Farms routinely have samples taken from their flocks by Certified Poultry Technicians to assure health of flock.”

The commonwealth’s laboratory is a unique, threefold approach connecting the Pennsylvania Veterinary Laboratory in Harrisburg, Penn State University’s Animal Diagnostic Laboratory and the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center. These laboratories provide real-time testing, field-based monitoring and producer outreach.

The PADLS laboratories also work with the department’s Bureau of Animal Health & Diagnostic Services veterinary medical field officers and domestic animal health inspectors in Pennsylvania.

This staff works with the farming and non-farming public on a range of farm-based animal health issues.

Continued Support for PADLS

Animal and human health are connected, and we are grateful for commitment from the governor and state legislature to support and prioritize animal health.

In the proposed fiscal year 2021-2022 budget, our PADLS system is funded at $5.3 million, and an additional $5.35 million will support the work of the Animal Health Commission, which provides industry prospective, research dollars and continued collaboration among animal agriculture stakeholders.

Additionally, University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine is proposed to receive $32 million and our land grant university — Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences — is proposed to receive $55 million to continue their work, including animal health.

PADLS was formed through the Animal Health and Diagnostic Act of 1988 in response to a devastating, highly pathogenic 1983 avian influenza outbreak resulting in the deaths of 17 million chickens, turkeys and guinea fowl in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Managing this outbreak cost nearly $65 million.

In 1983, we didn’t have a system for testing, and thus lost valuable time sending samples to the USDA’s national laboratory in Ames, Iowa. Now we have labs strategically placed around the state.

It was visionary at the time. We needed more than veterinarians out there on their own finding disease. We needed skilled scientists in diagnostic laboratories making sure that testing and data gathered translated into effective disease mitigation.

Today the PADLS System is National Animal Health Laboratory Network-certified and is Level 1-certified, meaning all three labs are authorized to perform regulatory testing for diseases of major public health, animal health and trade consequences.

Current State of Health

The “one health” phenomenon is real. Our health is related to the global health of humans, animals and the environment.

COVID-19 quickly spanned the globe causing disruption. PADLS monitored proactively, ready to respond if it mutated to animals.

Now the department and PADLS are observing a troubling uptick in cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza in wild waterfowl and domestic poultry in Europe, Asia and Africa. Between Jan. 15 and Feb. 4, more than 9 million birds have died in these areas, an increase from the previous reporting period which saw a loss of 7.3 million birds.

In February, Taiwan found an exact genetic match to the highly pathogenic strain that caused the 2014-15 outbreak in the United States. It caused the depopulation of 7.4 million turkeys and 43 million egg-layers and pullet chickens, mostly in the Midwest. It caused $1.6 billion in direct losses and is considered the most expensive animal health incident recorded in U.S. history.

Wild bird migration, happening now, could easily bring this deadly strain to the U.S.

State animal health officials and National Animal Health Laboratory Network laboratories across the nation keep a watchful eye through testing as USDA Wildlife Services continues sample collection on wild waterfowl in targeted areas of Pennsylvania and across the United States.

But all it takes is for an infected bird to rest on your land, and for someone’s boot to track infected bird droppings into the chicken pen. Remember, both domestic and wild water waterfowl can naturally have avian influenza residing in their gastrointestinal tracts. Keeping your chickens, turkeys and game birds separate and apart from ducks on your farm is critical to bird health.

You are the gate keeper for your farm. A biosecurity plan helps prevent disease from devastating your flock or herd.

But a biosecurity plan only works if it is implemented and all employees follow the plan.

Your vigilance is backed by the infrastructure and expertise Pennsylvania funds through animal scientists, veterinarians and the PADLS system, to manage the occurrence of disease that would otherwise decimate our economy, food supply and threaten human health.

Russell Redding is Pennsylvania’s secretary of agriculture.

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