Officials discuss threat of avian flu

LAURINBURG — Expecting a relatively tame season for 2015, Wednesday’s annual county hurricane update quickly turned to another threat that could prove disastrous to local farmers.

The H5N2 avian flu outbreak first discovered last December among backyard flocks in Washington state could make its way to North Carolina this fall once the migratory birds that spread the virus begin to travel south.

The virus has so far affected 40 million wild and commercial birds in 21 states.

Mark Howell, a representative from the N.C. Department of Agriculture outlined the possible impact on the state, which is one of the nation’s largest producers of poultry products.

“This particular virus is very virulent and very pathogenic, which means it kills and it does it fast,” Howell said, describing how the virus can infect every bird in a poultry house in two days and kill them within a week.

“From the day they’re infected to the day they’re all dead, you’ve only got seven days. That is fast. That is lightning.”

North Carolina produced $2.8 billion in broiler chickens, which are raised and sold for meat production, in 2012. In the same year, the state produced 36 million turkeys worth $848 million, and the 13 million laying hens produced more than 3 billion eggs.

In 2012, 19 million broilers were produced in Scotland County, according to Department of Agriculture statistics. Randy Wood, the county’s cooperative extension director, estimated that Scotland County is home to about 50 farms comprising 75 to 100 poultry houses.

Most are a secondary or tertiary source of income for crop and hay farmers, but employ an additional one to three people each.

“If and when it hits somewhere, it may be one farm that gets hit, but there’s four farms around it and odds are they’re going to get hit, too,” Wood said of the avian flu threat. “It’s going to exponentially grow, that’s the problem.”

According to Wood, when under threat most farmers redouble their efforts to adhere to standard biosecurity procedures, which can play a role in preventing avian flu and limiting its spread.

“This one is bad because it does spread by migratory birds, which is one reason why it has spread so much worse,” he said. “Hopefully we’re going to dodge a bullet, but I would be amazed if we don’t have some outbreaks in North Carolina.”

Howell outlined the process of responding to a farm infected with the virus. Once the H5N2 strain is confirmed in the area, officials can act at a specific farm based on a positive H5 result from Raleigh.

A 3-kilometer “infected zone” around the farm is quarantined, and the infected birds are appraised for insurance purposes before they are euthanized by filling the poultry house with a thick foam.

“How do you stop the virus? You stop the virus factory,” Howell said. “Birds are what we call an amplification species for avian influenza. Every time they breathe out, virus particles are coming out in their breath.”

Once the foam dissipates, the carcasses are disposed of through composting, a process which takes about two weeks. In a best case scenario, Howell said, a farm may resume production three months after an outbreak is identified.

The import of U.S. poultry products has been banned by 36 countries, citing the avian flu outbreak, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has paid out millions in indemnity to affected farmers. If it hits North Carolina, that will likely halt the sale of its poultry outside of the state.

“The economic impact of this thing reaches every sector of the economy,” Howell said.

Wood concurred, pointing out that the poultry industry traditionally provides stable, well-paid employment to unskilled workers.

“How many people work at the Mountaire plant in Lumber Bridge? They’re not going to go to RCC and start running computers tomorrow. And most of them make a pretty good living for their education level because it’s hard work. Once that job goes away, it goes away.”

In other business, the more than 50 emergency personnel, law enforcement officers, and other officials discussed their respective roles should a disaster arise.

“It’s just having all our act together about open shelters, everybody knowing who is who and what they need to do if we have a disaster situation, knowing what their responsibilities are and where to come, and knowing about communications between agencies and interagency responsibility and coordination,” said Scotland County EMS Director Roylin Hammond.

Based on water temperatures and previous history, this year’s hurricane season isn’t projected to blow any major storms up the East Coast.

“Everyone is in agreement about the predictions that it’s going to be lower than it normally is,” Hammond said. “But in 1992 Andrew was the only hurricane that made landfall, and it devastated Florida, so we just have to be prepared.”

Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.

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