Auburn veterinarian discusses avian flu spreading along East Coast, potential impact

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Avian flu is starting to spread along the East Coast after initially being found in South Carolina in mid-January. Dr. Seth Oster of the Southeastern Raptor Center in Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine describes avian flu and its potential impact on bird populations.

What is avian flu?

Avian flu is the common name for a large group of influenza viruses that infect a variety of birds. The disease is divided into two categories: low pathogenic avian influenza, which often causes more mild clinical signs, and high pathogenic avian influenza, which causes severe disease and often death in infected birds. Influenza viruses also have a number of surface proteins that can be used to identify them. The most important two are neuraminidase (N) and hemagglutinin (H). These proteins have a number of different forms and are often used to name the virus involved in outbreaks. H5N1 was responsible for the bird flu outbreak in 2003, and H1N1 was responsible for the swine flu outbreak of 2009 and the Spanish flu of 1918.

What types of birds are affected?

The disease is commonly carried by waterfowl, and this is how it is able to spread throughout the country. Waterfowl infected with the virus are usually asymptomatic, meaning they do not develop disease with the virus. These viruses can also infect other groups of birds such as poultry or raptors, where it can cause significant disease.

How can we tell if a bird has avian flu?

Clinical signs of influenza can vary based on the type of flu and the species the virus has infected. Signs of infection can include coughing, sneezing, respiratory distress, deceased egg production, diarrhea, anorexia and depression.

What could be the impact on poultry farmers?

The impact on the poultry industry can be very significant. It is important that poultry farmers practice strict biosecurity to prevent the infection of their flocks with any form of this virus. High pathogenicity variants of the virus have been documented to cause death in 90% to 100% of chickens in a flock within 48 hours. Working with the state veterinarian’s office and the USDA, farmers can mitigate their risk to their farms.

What regions of the country are affected?

The USDA runs a wild bird surveillance program to detect avian flu and monitor its presence in the United States. In mid-January, three wild birds tested positive for H5N1: two in South Carolina and one in North Carolina. This indicates that the virus is in the wild bird population within the Atlantic flyway, which passes through the eastern edges of Alabama. It is possible that this virus is in other flyways.

Can humans catch avian flu?

H5N1 was first documented to spread from birds to humans in 1997. Since then, this virus has continued to spread to humans, primarily in regions where the virus has become endemic. Humans are infected either by direct exposure to infected birds or through exposure of bodily fluids of birds. Control of the spread of this virus in the bird population is essential to preventing human infections.

About Dr. Seth Oster:

Dr. Seth Oster is the primary veterinarian at the Southeastern Raptor Center in Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Oster, an assistant clinical professor in the college’s Avian Service, is a member of the Association of Avian Veterinarians and the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians.

He received his Bachelor of Science in zoology from Auburn in 2009 and his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Auburn in 2012. During his time at Auburn, he worked at the Southeastern Raptor Center from 2006 to 2011. Upon graduation he entered private practice where he saw small animals, avians and other exotic species. He continued to work with local wildlife rehab workers as well. He returned to Auburn’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2015.

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