A highly contagious avian disease reported late last year in privately owned backyard flocks in Southern California has spread to flocks in neighboring Nevada and Arizona. Since the initial outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease, 14 of California's commercial poultry farms have been infected and more than two million birds depopulated.
The most recent outbreak was confirmed Feb. 4 in chickens on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in western Arizona.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has declared an extraordinary emergency in all three states, mobilizing a task force of some 1,600 federal and state animal health workers to identify infected flocks, euthanatize and dispose of birds, clean and disinfect sites, and provide educational material about exotic Newcastle disease to the states' poultry industry and area residents.
At least two meetings dealing with veterinary biologics and animal disease diagnosticians' training were canceled as federal veterinarians were needed to assist with disease eradication efforts in the three states.
The emergency declaration placed a federal quarantine on eight counties in California affecting an estimated 10,000 premises within the state. Movement restrictions were also implemented on poultry in a small number of counties in Nevada and Arizona where the disease outbreak appears to be less severe.
"We feel like we're pretty well on top of it," Larry Cooper, Exotic Newcastle Task Force spokesman, said. The outbreak has been contained to the quarantined areas within Southern California, Cooper explained, but he acknowledged that the state's poultry industry isn't out of the woods yet.
The hope is this exotic Newcastle disease outbreak won't be a repeat of the 1971 outbreak in which 12 million birds were depopulated. This time around, "We were better able to attack the problem more quickly, and hopefully, that'll make a difference, but it's too early to predict that," Cooper said.
Humans can be infected with exotic Newcastle disease, with the most common sign being conjunctivitis. But among birds it is one of the most infectious avian diseases known, affecting all bird species. Infected birds may die suddenly or show respiratory, nervous, or gastrointestinal signs.
The virus is spread primarily through direct contact with birds and through their bodily discharges, although it can also be transmitted by vehicles, equipment—even shoes and clothing.
The world community views exotic Newcastle disease as a danger to international animal trade. Since the first infection in this outbreak was reported in October, more than 20 countries banned imports of poultry and poultry products from affected areas in California, Nevada, and Arizona. The European Union, Argentina, and Guam have prohibited poultry exports from the entire United States.
California's egg industry is bearing the brunt of the outbreak's costs, as 60 percent of the state's laying poultry is located in Southern California, according to Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation. The disease hasn't affected the fryer or roaster bird industry because most of those operations are situated in the northern part of the state, he said, although poultry exports have taken a serious hit.
"The impact on exports is a substantial part of our expense right now," Mattos said.
With California's $3 billion poultry industry at risk, efforts have been stepped up to contain and eradicate the disease.
Door-to-door searches for sick birds are being conducted, along with tracking birds into and out of infected flocks. Veterinary practices inside and outside the quarantined areas have been asked to report sick birds to state or federal animal agriculture officials.
Poultry producers are being reimbursed for birds culled as part of the eradication program. It's too soon to tell what the economic fallout will be, but Cooper doesn't expect the effects will be devastating in the short term. The impact on California's poultry producers in the long run, however, remains to be seen.
For more information on exotic Newcastle disease or the current outbreak, visit the USDA's exotic Newcastle disease Web site, www.aphis.usda.gov/lpa/issues/enc/exoticnc.html.