Flock of North Carolina turkeys catch highly contagious bird flu

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A Johnston County turkey farm has become the first commercial farm in North Carolina to test positive for a highly contagious form of bird flu. This file photo shows a flock of turkeys.

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North Carolina agriculture officials discovered highly contagious bird flu on a commercial turkey farm in Johnston County, they announced Wednesday.

The positive test marks the first time this bird flu has been discovered in the widespread poultry industry in the state, North Carolina Department of Agriculture officials said in a statement.

“I’ve been worried about this for a few months now, ever since I started hearing about outbreaks,” said Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper. “Looks like it’s here now.”

State officials said the flock of 32,100 birds was killed and was composting at the site to prevent further spread. North Carolina state veterinarian Mike Martin said in a statement that the state and industry are “actively testing” herds within 6.2 miles of the farm, an all-encompassing area. Johnston and parts of Sampson and Wayne counties.

Heather Overton, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture, said the Johnston County turkey farm had eight barns. Operators noticed a slight increase in bird mortality in just one barn, Overton said, which led to the tests.

The birds were killed, Overton said, filling the barn with moss.

Overton declined to release the exact location of the poultry farm with the positive test, citing General Statute NC 106-24.1, which makes medical information collected by farm owners confidential unless the state veterinarian deems the disclosure necessary to stop the spread of the disease.

“There are no plans to do that at this time,” Overton said.

Additional testing around the Johnston County farm is ongoing. Overton said no nearby herds have tested positive so far. The first round of additional testing must take place within 48 hours of a positive report, and then weekly thereafter.

Overton declined to say how many additional farms were tested.

If done correctly, on-site bird composting might be the safest option, said Larry Baldwin, CAFO coordinator in North Carolina for the Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit group. But, he added, composting — rather than incinerating or burying the turkeys — runs the risk of other animals eating the carcasses, picking up the virus and spreading it.

Composting also risks flooding local waterways with bacteria or nutrients if it rains on the birds, said Pamlico-Tar River Guardian Jill Howell. Excess nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, can lead to fish kills and algal blooms.

The composting process is the same one the Department of Agriculture deploys when chickens and pigs die in floodwaters during hurricanes, Overton said. By reaching high enough temperatures, she added, the virus is killed.

North Carolina’s poultry and egg industry is the nation’s most valuable, accounting for $4.19 billion in sales in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This includes the sale of 961.3 million broiler chickens and 31 million turkeys.

“The threat of high-trajectory avian influenza is statewide. Our poultry population is at high risk,” Martin said in a statement.

Nationally, the rapidly spreading bird flu has been discovered in 48 commercial poultry farms in 13 states.

North Carolina poultry farmers have adopted measures such as limiting visits to their barns, The Charlotte Observer previously reported. These measures include sanitizing equipment with increased frequency and requiring workers to wear extra shoes or change clothes when moving between barns.

These measures were taken to prevent the virus from spreading via bird droppings, The Observer reported.

“We’ve been on heightened alert since January,” Overton said.

The positive sample was tested at the North Carolina Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Raleigh before being confirmed at the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

State agriculture officials continue to investigate how bird flu entered the Johnston County turkey farm.

Burdette said the virus can spread via feed trucks that travel from farm to farm, wild animals, such as rodents or vultures, or even by air, where farms are close to each other.

I think that’s a really, really big deal,” Burdette said. “It has the potential to have huge impacts on North Carolina’s environment. It’s going to have huge impacts on the industry, of course.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the flu poses a low risk to people, with no human cases reported. But the virus can spread quickly among birds, especially poultry flocks.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, 144 wild birds found in North Carolina have tested positive for bird flu. Many have been killed by hunters in coastal areas, but recent cases have included a red-winged hawk found dead in Wake County and a bald eagle found dead in Davidson County.

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has previously reported that waterfowl like ducks and geese can carry the flu without showing symptoms. But raptors that feed on waterfowl or scavengers that eat their carcasses are susceptible to the disease.

Symptoms of highly pathogenic avian influenza in birds include low energy or activity; twisting of the head and neck; decreased egg production or deformed eggs; purple discoloration of wattles, comb and legs; and difficulty breathing.

If “birds are sick or dying,” the state agricultural department urges owners to report it to their local veterinarian. Bird owners can also call the Veterinary Division of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at 919-707-3250 or the North Carolina Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory System at 919-733 -3986.

This story was originally published March 30, 2022 3:05 p.m.

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Adam Wagner covers climate change and other environmental issues in North Carolina. Her work is produced with the financial support of 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of a freelance journalism fellowship program. Wagner’s previous work at The News & Observer included coverage of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and North Carolina’s recovery from recent hurricanes. He previously worked at the Wilmington StarNews.

Sharon P. Juarez