BRATTLEBORO—“There’s a really, really, really good possibility bird flu will be here next year,” Guilford Emergency Management Director Ron Lenker told The Commons.
“I think it’s a very real threat,” he added.
Lenker recently attended the annual Emergency Preparedness Conference, hosted by the state’s Department of Emergency Management & Homeland Security (DEMHS). Part of the day’s events was a seminar on highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5, commonly known as “bird flu."
State Veterinarian Dr. Kristin Haas of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets, said “we can’t tell for sure without a crystal ball” if bird flu will come to the state, but, “it’s a decent-to-likely chance."
Outbreaks of HPAI H5, according to the Centers for Disease Control, have been reported in domestic or captive birds in 15 states, and in wild birds in six states, between December 2014 and mid-June 2015.
According to the USDA’s webpage on avian influenza, the “viruses can infect chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, ducks, geese and guinea fowl, as well as a wide variety of other birds."
“One of the ways the disease can be carried is with migratory waterfowl,” Haas told The Commons.
Lenker told The Commons that although the outbreaks have mostly been confined to the Midwest fly-way, all birds meet at the “top of the globe” and mingle. Thus, geese and ducks returning to the eastern states’ migratory pattern — which brings them to Guilford — will likely count the infected as part of their flocks.
At the Oct. 26 regular Selectboard meeting, Lenker reported on the seminar, discussed the virus, and sketched out a plan to help preserve the townspeople’s poultry flocks.
Board Chair Anne Rider asked Lenker how the disease is transmitted: “If a goose lands in your chicken yard?"
“All he has to do is poop in your chicken yard while he’s flying over,” Lenker replied.
Board member Troy Revis reminded his colleagues of a chicken’s typical behavior: “Chickens do what in their poop?"
“They peck in it,” Lenker responded.
“It’s highly, highly contagious,” he added. “Once it gets into a flock, you have 90 to 98 percent mortality. Sometimes the chicken gets sick and the owner doesn’t even realize it, and they eat the eggs."
Lenker assured the board “at this point, [bird flu] cannot be transmitted to humans."
Lenker told The Commons chickens with HPAI H5 “don’t really look sick."
“There’s just a little blood or pus on their comb, then they’re dead,” he said.
Once Lenker receives word of an outbreak in town, he must report it to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Then, the area within a 10-kilometer radius of the outbreak must be quarantined.
“The USDA will swoop in here, and depopulate” — a.k.a., destroy — “the entire flock,” Lenker said.
“The important thing is, to not let those birds move because [the bird flu] is so contagious,” Lenker noted.
Lenker’s plan is to compile a list of all Guilford residents with domestic fowl.
He told the board he is concerned that “people might not like me asking” for that information, but Lenker said his purpose is not to pry into anyone’s privacy. He assured The Commons he is not compiling the list for any reason other than “to protect my people in Guilford."
“I’m just a local yokel trying to help out,” Lenker said.
“If there is one case of [bird flu],” he said, the USDA “is going to move in, and it will be out of all of our hands anyway."
Board member Dick Clark characterized Lenker’s plan as a “proactive approach.” Rider agreed, saying, “as a person who has birds, this is information we should want to have."
Lenker told The Commons he can use the domestic fowl registry to warn residents of an outbreak.
Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture web page provides a wealth of information for fowl farmers large and small, private and commercial. (agriculture.vermont.gov/animal_health/avian_influenza_preparedness)
Haas said prevention and coordination are key: “it’s a group effort."
“Everybody across the country is doing what we’re doing,” Haas said.
She mentioned programs in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, encouraging those living just across Vermont’s borders to visit their respective websites (www.dhhs.nh.gov/dphs/cdcs/avian) and (www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/agr/animal-health/poultry/avian-influenza.html)
“Good bio-security is most important,” Haas said.
She cautioned poultry owners to not introduce new birds into the flock without a quarantine period, not to share equipment with other flocks, to make sure the entire area and supplies are well-cleaned, and to wear washable rubber boots used only on one’s property.
It’s crucial to “not bring anything back home,” she said.
Haas said because there is no poultry registry in Vermont, the state is trying to find ways to get the word out “through as many channels as possible."
She said her goal is “not to cause undue stress or alarm,” but “the more informed and prepared” we are, the faster “we can get out from under this."
“Vermont is only as prepared as the least-prepared poultry owner,” Haas said.