Auburn University poultry scientists Joe Giambrone and Ken Macklin are using funding from the U.S. egg industry to investigate how the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus, which has decimated poultry populations in the Midwest in the past nine months, spreads to poultry farms.
The bird flu virus, as it is more commonly known, is carried by infected but asymptomatic free-flying ducks, geese and other aquatic fowl migrating to and from Canada. Since December 2014, the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus has resulted in the death of more than 49 million commercial chickens and turkeys and backyard poultry in at least 15 states.
The predominant theory is that the virus enters poultry farms by means of fecal droppings and windborne feathers from infected waterfowl, but people, too, can introduce the virus to farms on contaminated shoes, shared equipment and vehicles.
In their year-long study, funded by a $38,000 grant from the Iowa-based Egg Industry Center, the two Auburn Department of Poultry Science researchers are studying other potential sources of transmission.
“Possible additional means include rodents and insects that are infected with or are carrying the virus and infected poultry-house water lines from ponds visited by infected migratory birds, but there is no conclusive evidence now on any of those possibilities,” Giambrone says. “Our focus is on those three potential sources.”
Specifically, the Department of Poultry Science faculty members are looking at possible transmission of the virus by litter beetles, mice and the biofilm that forms inside the drinking-water lines of poultry houses. All three conditions are commonly found on poultry farms around the world.
“Our previous work with another respiratory virus in poultry showed that biofilm ‘protected’ the virus in water lines, even when the water was chlorinated,” Giambrone says. That virus was also found in litter beetles and rats and in mud near the entrances to chicken houses.
The Auburn researchers’ findings will help improve the scientific community’s understanding of the epidemiology of avian influenza virus and could aid in the development of control and prevention strategies.
So far, Alabama’s $15 billion poultry industry has dodged the bullet in this year’s avian influenza epidemic, but the threat of massive outbreaks will return this fall as wild birds migrate south.