Penn Vet researchers stand guard against avian influenza

Earlier this year, five states in the southern United States reported outbreaks of avian influenza, a respiratory disease that infects both wild and domestic farmed birds.

A prompt response from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and local agencies, laboratories, and farms quickly contained this spring’s outbreaks, but because the virus can be transmitted to domestic flocks from wild birds, the risk for other cases is ever-present.

“It’s hard to predict where the next outbreak is going to occur or where it is going to come from,” says Sherrill Davison, an associate professor of avian medicine and pathology in Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. “That’s why it is essential that we be vigilant on a daily basis.”

Avian influenza viruses can cause mild or severe illness depending on the strain. The last major outbreak of a highly pathogenic virus in the U.S. began in 2014, infecting nearly 50 million birds in 21 states. Economic losses were estimated in the billions of dollars.

Penn Vet serves as an important partner to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in preparing to control the next outbreak, taking part in surveillance, biosecurity, and education. As one of three laboratories that compose the Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System, Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center tests about 70,000 samples for avian influenza each year.

“With avian influenza, one thing that we know is that early warning is very, very important,” Davison says. “Our surveillance system has been in place since a serious outbreak in 1983-84, and that enables us to have a rapid response to any virus we might detect.”

After the 2014-15 outbreak, Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding established a Pennsylvania Avian Influenza Task Force to prepare for an outbreak of the highly pathogenic disease. Davison and colleagues at Penn Vet continue to take part in regular conversations with experts at Penn State University, the Pennsylvania Veterinary Lab in Harrisburg, and others to share information and discuss best practices.

“What’s wonderful about Pennsylvania, whether it’s avian flu or other disease issues, is that we have a team approach that includes members of the agricultural industry, universities, and state agencies, and we practice and think about this on a daily basis to make sure we’re ready,” Davison says.

For Davison, a big part of preparedness is simply raising awareness of the need for biosecurity for those who keep poultry, no matter how many animals one has.

“When you enter into an animal facility you have to be clean about it. You have to understand that you can carry disease on footwear, on clothes, on hands,” she says. “Whether you have a smaller groups of backyard birds or a large flock, I and the team at Penn Vet and PADLS New Bolton Center are here to help. Give us a call.”

Avian Flu Penn Vet