Published on 05/10/02

Avian Flu Poses Threat to Georgia Poultry

An avian influenza virus outbreak can cause millions of dollars in economic damage. But officials hope to keep this virus out of Georgia and away from its multibillion dollar poultry industry before it does.

The virus has caused the eradication of about 3 million chickens in Virginia and cost the poultry industry there millions of dollars in damage. The virus is also in North Carolina, said Dan Cunningham of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"It's a bad and very contagious disease that is easily spread among poultry," said Cunningham, Extension Service coordinator for the CAES poultry science department. "We're very concerned in keeping it out of Georgia."

Deadly Quickly

Photo: USDA

Avian flu has already hit other states hard. Officials hope to keep it away from Georgia's multi-billion dollar poultry industry.

The virus detected in Virginia and North Carolina a month ago is only mildly pathogenic, he said. With this form of the virus, a chicken has respiratory problems, not unlike humans with the flu. It also affects the growth of the chicken, but it isn't deadly in most cases.

However, this mild version has been known to turn very quickly into the highly pathogenic and deadly form of avian influenza virus. "When this happens," Cunningham said, "the mortality rate goes much higher, and it becomes much more contagious."

Any such virus would have a devastating effect on Georgia's $10 billion poultry industry, he said.

No Cure

There is no cure for the virus. The only way to contain it is to eradicate the infected birds. This is what is happening in Virginia and North Carolina right now. And they're beginning to get a handle on the spread of the virus through these states, he said.

Chickens to be processed for commercial sale are raised in flocks in houses on growers' farms. One chicken house will get four to six flocks of birds in one year.

Cunningham said it's common for chicken flocks to cross state lines, especially in the Southeast.

Stop It?

This prompted the Georgia Department of Agriculture to put the brakes on any birds coming from Virginia or North Carolina into Georgia. Any chickens coming into Georgia from any other state now have to be certified that they come from an avian influenza-clean flock.

There has never been an outbreak of this virus in Georgia. Recently, though, birds in Georgia have been traced back to a flock that originated from an infected area in North Carolina.

Certain wild birds can also carry the virus.

"But we do not have the virus in Georgia right now," Cunningham said.

Scientists are exploring ways to fight this virus. But there is no vaccine. The best way to fight the virus, Cunningham said, is to not get it.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.