Keeping an eye out for avian flu

West Tisbury health agent Omar Johnson gives tools for bird owners to defend their flocks. 

HPAI can be deadly to poultry. — Jeremy Driesen

The West Tisbury board of health shared that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) “has confirmed the presence of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in a noncommercial backyard flock (nonpoultry)” in Newport County, R.I. Samples from the flock tested by the University of Connecticut Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory were confirmed to have HPAI by APHIS National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa.

APHIS is working closely with Rhode Island officials to make sure these birds do “not enter the food system” by quarantining the area and euthanizing the birds, according to the announcement. According to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, this flock, which consisted of chickens, ducks, and turkeys, had “unrestricted access to wild waterfowl.” Lyndsay Cole, APHIS assistant director of public affairs, said these birds were labeled as “nonpoultry” in the announcement because the animals were not sold as food or for their fiber. Cole said a commercial aspect needs to be present for birds to be considered “poultry” by APHIS. 

HPAI poses a low public health risk to people. 

Although there is some distance between Rhode Island and Martha’s Vineyard, West Tisbury health agent Omar Johnson wanted to give his town’s residents “the resources ready at their fingertips,” such as the links in the APHIS announcement. 

“Because it’s a neighboring state, I wanted to alert members of the West Tisbury community,” Johnson said, adding that West Tisbury is a farming community, and a number of people raise chickens and other types of birds. “If I share this information, they will have all of the resources and information to observe their own poultry and react quickly.” 

In June, a large number of birds were found dead on Island beaches, and HPAI was suspected. HPAI was later ruled out, and it was determined starvation was the cause of death for the birds, most of them great shearwaters. 

HPAI can “spread rapidly” through poultry species flocks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In October, APHIS also reported that HPAI was found in a noncommercial backyard flock in New Mexico, and in an Arkansas commercial broiler chicken flock. APHIS has a list of HPAI-positive cases in 2022 on its website, which shows that Massachusetts has had two outbreaks in backyard producers that affected 50 birds in Bristol County and 260 birds in Berkshire County. APHIS announces the first case of HPAI in commercial and backyard flocks detected in a state, but not subsequent outbreaks, which can be seen on the website.  

“While we cannot predict the exact risk for any certain area, the virus is primarily being spread by migratory wild birds,” Cole told The Times. “To date, there have been two cases in Massachusetts, both in small backyard flocks.”

The announcement recommends people cook eggs and poultry to an internal temperature of 165°F to kill bacteria and viruses as a food safety precaution, based on CDC information. Bird owners should also keep their flock away from wild birds, if possible. APHIS has more information about biosecurity on its Defend the Flock resource center web page. The announcement also recommends bird owners report birds that are sick or experience “unusual deaths” to officials at APHIS’ toll-free number, 1-800-536-7593, or their state veterinarian, who can be contacted in Massachusetts at 617-626-1791. Islanders can also reach out to their town’s board of health for assistance.