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Avian flu: How it got here, and how we’ll be better prepared next time

WORTHINGTON -- Three bird experts spoke Thursday night at the 12th annual Worthington BiO Conference to dozens of attendees eager to learn about the effects of the avian influenza outbreak last year. The panelists included Jeff Barber, a local fa...

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Panelists Carol Cardona (from left), Jill Nezworski, Jeff Barber and Randy Simonson discuss avian influenza during Thursday’s dinner. Tim Middagh/Daily Globe

WORTHINGTON - Three bird experts spoke Thursday night at the 12th annual Worthington BiO Conference to dozens of attendees eager to learn about the effects of the avian influenza outbreak last year.
The panelists included Jeff Barber, a local farmer whose turkeys died last spring as a result of the virus; Jill Nezworski, a poultry health veterinarian and owner of Blue House Veterinary & Laboratory in Buffalo Lake; and Carol Cardona, a professor in avian health at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Randy Simonson moderated the event.
"It's a shocking experience," Barber recalled of when his turkey flock contracted the virus in April 2015. “You walk in and it's dead silent. ... It's a sickening feeling."
University of Minnesota researchers confirmed that Barber’s farm was infected the same day.
“It was one of the longest days, and probably one of the worst days, of my life,” he continued.
Barber and his business partner took the first step to eradicate the virus from their barns and started the process of depopulating the entire farm.
They placed the birds into a barn and suffocated the flocks with foam - an extremely expensive and heartbreaking procedure.

Domesticated birds are extremely vulnerable to the virus, so even ones that seemed healthy in other barns on the property had to be disposed of.
“That was the humane way,” Barber said, adding that the chickens still alive after the process were euthanized the next day.
They took the next step and heated the barn to decompose the turkeys and all their feed. Every 14 days they had to turn the compost over to speed up the process.
“Oh, my god,” remarked a person in the audience.
Soon they were inundated with paperwork from the federal government and struggled to receive approval to remove the compost from the barn.
“We were individual farmers trying to make a living, so we had to do all the work ourselves,” he said, adding that other contractors told them to remove the compost.
Finally, after numerous phone calls, they were approved to remove the compost from the barn and started the long process of cleaning their barns.
They had to dry clean the barns once and wet clean them twice.
“You get 8-10 feet (clean) on an 800-foot barn, and it seems like you’ll never finish,” he said.
Later, they received approval from the Department of Agriculture to start repopulating the barn 21 days after the job was finished.
In November, after months of waiting, they started introducing new flocks into the barns.
However, the financial reminders of the avian flu outbreak still linger for Barber and his partner. The two had to take out a loan to keep the farm.
“The bills keep coming in and you have to pay them,” he said. “I hated getting a loan, but we needed to do that to keep afloat.”
“It felt like I went through a death,” Barber continued, adding that he also experienced denial and then depression as a result of his financial situation. He was also given medicine from a doctor to help him sleep.
“It was absolutely sickening to go through that process,” he said.
The avian flu epidemic came to Minnesota last March when a commercial turkey flock in Pope County contracted a harmful strain of the virus. It spread to hundreds of farms, and the industry lost $647.2 million and $171 million in wages, salaries and benefits, according to an article on Life Science Lexus, sponsored by the Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp.
Barber’s flock was among five million turkeys affected in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.
The virus was first detected in a province in China in 1996, Cardona said.
“Flu viruses are like a deck of cards… they develop new abilities,” she continued.
The United States was not prepared for an outbreak, largely because many people thought it wouldn’t travel across oceans, she said. A similar outbreak in 1983-’84 was handled well by researchers at the time, but by 2006 (when flocks in Washington were infected) many of those scientists were retired, she recalled.
Researchers do not fully understand the virus. In 2012, a duck was found in Wisconsin with a H14 strain; that strain was discovered 28 years ago near the Caspian Sea, Cardona said.
Industry researchers hope to prevent deadly outbreaks in the future.
“We know we have to move fast,” Cardona said, adding that the federal government is better prepared to react to an outbreak.
“You have to kill one flock to save 100 and we have to kill them fast,” she said. “(Ventilation shutdown) is not a humane process, but it’s not inhumane… we have to stop it early to protect the rest of the herd.”
A new way for farmers to test for the virus is also available by swabbing scum buildup in turkey drinking fountains, Nezworski said. Results are available the same day researchers receive the samples.
Barber has also increased biosecurity measures in his barns.
All of the entryways have been redesigned so that nothing enters the the barns without first being disinfected.
Barber and his partner change their clothes and boots, step into disinfectant, wear masks and disinfect equipment when entering the barn.
Attendees also asked the panelist why farmers aren’t vaccinating their flocks.
Farmers can’t vaccinate their flocks because other countries would cut off trade to the United States, Cardona said. However, researchers are working to change that.
“We simply have to evolve,” she said, adding that some people are more comfortable with identifying symptoms in their flocks, and a vaccine would hide many of those first-occurring symptoms.
Turkeys are also extremely difficult to vaccinate since they do not have an immune system, she continued.
“Those rules and ideas were created in the ’80s and ’90s when we didn’t have a lot of the (technology) we do today,” she said, adding that vaccines against the virus are being developed.
“If we got it again, there’s no way we could survive through it,” Barber said. “Are we whole? No. Are we surviving? Yes.”

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BiO Conference attendees dine Thursday night at the Worthington Event Center. Tim Middagh/Daily Globe

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