Avian flu outbreaks strike Va. farms
For almost a year, Virginia poultry farms managed to avoid the nation’s worst-ever avian flu outbreak, but in January, the virus struck a commercial turkey operation in Rockingham County, prompting the killings of 25,300 birds.
Five days later, 10,700 more turkeys were euthanized in Rockingham, and in February, 800 birds at an Alexandria live market were killed to stop the flu’s spread.
These numbers are small, considering that 58.6 million birds nationwide have died from the flu as of mid-March. But even a small outbreak is a big deal in Rockingham, where federal mandates required the 150 to 200 poultry facilities within 10 kilometers of the infected flock to quarantine and test their birds.
In 2021, Virginia poultry farmers produced 14.5 million turkeys. The state produced 284.5 million broiler chickens that year, too. So, avian flu “is definitely very significant to the business,” says Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spokesman Michael Wallace.
A 2002 flu bout led to the culling of more than 4.7 million birds in Virginia, costing the poultry industry $130 million. Egg and turkey prices have escalated in the past year, partly due to the flu.
The illness can be brought into poultry farms when wild birds like waterfowl or bald eagles mix with a domesticated flock, or by poultry workers stepping in wild bird droppings, Wallace notes.
Dr. Charles Broaddus, the state veterinarian, says the number of migratory birds flying through Virginia is causing the disease’s spread here — although the flu makes chickens and domestic turkeys visibly sick quickly, vultures and eagles can carry the virus with few, if any, symptoms. The good news is that migration is expected to taper off in mid-April, Broaddus says, and this avian flu strain hasn’t affected humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that as long as poultry or eggs are cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, they’re safe to eat.
Once a farm has a confirmed infection, it can take several months to disinfect all areas so it’s safe to bring birds back, Broaddus notes, although the smaller live market in Alexandria was back in business in three days after cleaning and disinfecting.
“With biosecurity, there’s always room for improvement, and farmers are doing a good job at that,” he says, although with the virus thriving among wild birds, it is hard to combat.