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A highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza has been detected in Utah

A group of white chickens in an enclosure.
Zoe Schaeffer
The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food is recommending keeping poultry in enclosures for now to avoid contact with wild birds that may carry avian influenza

State and federal agencies have been carefully monitoring a novel strain of avian influenza that has been spreading across North America. This strain is highly contagious and often lethal to the birds it infects. The risk of transmission to people is low.

“Anytime you're dealing with a disease like this that could spread to people and change, we want to take precautions, but we think the risk right now is very low with this particular strain," said Dr. Dean Taylor, State Veterinarian for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food’s Animal Health Program. He says birds afflicted with the disease show a variety of symptoms including nasal discharge, fluid coming out of the beak, and respiratory issues, but the most obvious sign is acute death.

Taylor explains that the first case in the state was detected Friday in Utah County. Two birds from a backyard flock passed away and were sent to Utah State’s Veterinary Diagnostic Lab where they confirmed the death was from avian influenza.

“So the situation with this flock was that they had seven older laying hens that were basically pets at this point in time," Taylor said. "And so they allowed them to free range in their backyard. And in the course of that they backed up to some waterways there. And there were some wild ducks that were coming in and out of that waterway.”

Wild ducks are the main carrier of the virus, which does not negatively affect them, leaving the ducks healthy and able to migrate to different areas, spreading avian influenza with them as they go. Given that spring migration is in full swing, these wild ducks are moving around quite a bit, Taylor explained, “Our avian expert in the state had told us that April would be our most challenging month because we have such a migration here through the month of April. So we expect this to go on until the weather warms up a bit.”

Taylor says they expect infections to decrease as weather warms, making it harder for the virus to survive.

Migratory birds follow 4 major flyways as they travel through North America; the Atlantic, the Mississippi, the Central and the Pacific Flyways. The Central flyway moves right through Utah along the Wasatch Front. This strain of avian influenza is now present in all 4 flyways.

Organizations with populations of captive birds, like zoos, are also working to keep their birds safe. Meg Kast is an avian zookeeper at Zootah in Logan, and she explains some of the precautions her zoo has implemented in preparation of the virus making its way to Utah.

“Currently, we've got chlorhexidine, footbeds, around the zoo, various avian enclosures that we’ll use going in and out of the enclosure, at least to prevent the spread of it from enclosure to enclosure. The enclosures that we can protect, we are protecting lots of hand sanitizing stations, pretty much anytime anybody touches a bird, their hands get sanitized before and after," Kast said.

Kast says that for some open enclosures there is a high likelihood of cross contamination with wild ducks, but Zootah is doing all they can to reduce them on their grounds.

“The mallards like to feed off of our animals' food, even the deer pellets, anything," Kast said. "So we've taken those things and we've raised them up off the ground where the ducks can't reach him anymore. And that has been decreasing the mallard population at the zoo.”

For commercial operations Utah’s Animal Health Program is recommending they increase biosecurity plans. Taylor said that includes restricting any entrance into a facility.

“Anybody that goes into that facility, they would wear PPE, they would change, some of them are showering in and out of their facility. So you can't even get in there with anything that you've worn outside," Taylor said. "And you know, that would be the best if everybody had the facilities to do that, that would be the best thing to do.”

For smaller backyard producers, Taylor says the best thing to do is keep the flock contained and limit cross contamination, avoid parks with big duck populations or even friend’s chickens.

“Try to keep what's yours in your yard and everything else out as best you can. We support free range for chickens. It's a great lifestyle and, you know, good quality of life for the hands," Taylor said. "But right now we're asking people to please keep them in coops because that is going to be their best protection to keep them from commingling with waterfowl and getting exposed to it in their backyards. So if they can do that until this until this passes, I think that would help.” 

More information can be found on the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food website.

Ellis Juhlin is a science reporter here at Utah Public Radio and a Master's Student at Utah State. She studies Ferruginous Hawk nestlings and the factors that influence their health. She loves our natural world and being part of wildlife research. Now, getting to communicate that kind of research to the UPR listeners through this position makes her love what she does even more. In her free time, you can find her outside on a trail with her partner Matt and her goofy pups Dodger and Finley. They love living in a place where there are year-round adventures to be had!