Newcastle reaches poultry barns in California, home in Utah

Published on February 13, 2019

About 500,000 birds have died or been depopulated in a virulent Newcastle outbreak in Southern California.

The disease also spread in January to a small flock of chickens in Utah County, Utah, which is near Salt Lake City, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

About 430,000 of the dead birds were in three commercial chicken flocks in Riverside County east of Los Angeles, according to information from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The rest were backyard birds in Riverside, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Ventura counties.

Disease response workers
State and federal disease response workers gather in December at a Southern California commercial poultry barn where birds are infected with virulent Newcastle disease. At least three facilities had infections, leading to the deaths of 430,000 birds through illness or depopulation. (Photos courtesy of CDFA)

Dr. Ricardo Gaitan, an environmental scientist for the CDFA, said in a message that employees of CDFA and USDA have been working every day since May, at least 12 hours a day, to eradicate the disease. The disease first spread to a commercial facility in mid-December.

They have visited 109,000 properties and placed 3,400 under quarantine, he said.

"Most bird owners are extremely cooperative and of great help to us in working together to eradicate the disease," Dr. Gaitan said. "However, there remain far too many people who have moved birds because they refuse to accept the science, believe their birds are healthy, and then subsequently move their birds and spread virus to other areas.

"Our greatest obstacle to eliminating the disease is people who are spreading the virus by moving sick birds from infected areas to noninfected areas trying to save them."

Virulent Newcastle disease is an untreatable and highly contagious respiratory and neurologic disease. It can kill entire flocks of unvaccinated birds and can even kill vaccinated birds, according to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

APHIS announcements indicate VND is not a food safety concern, but people who work with sick birds can develop conjunctivitis and flu-like symptoms.

Federal and state workers are conducting surveillance and testing and helping commercial farms increase biosecurity.

Dr. Annette Jones, California state veterinarian, said in a Jan. 8 message to residents that, because of the progression and duration of the disease outbreak, she had ordered euthanasia of all poultry in four neighborhoods: Compton in Los Angeles County, Muscoy in San Bernardino County, Perris in Riverside County, and Mira Loma in Riverside County.

"While this action is difficult for all involved, it MUST be done to eradicate VND," she wrote. "Otherwise, the disease will continue to spread and kill additional flocks."

Dr. Gaitan presenting at town hall meeting
Dr. Ricardo Gaitan, an environmental scientist for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, tries to raise awareness about virulent Newcastle disease Dec. 17 through a presentation at a town hall meeting in Perris, California.

Dr. Gaitan said government agencies spent $200 million eradicating Newcastle disease in the most recent prior outbreak, in 2002-03. That outbreak also occurred in Southern California, where 4 million birds were euthanized or died from the disease.

Dr. Gaitan also said the federal government shutdown early this year had not affected the emergency response, and USDA employees continued their support as emergency responders. He said the professionals working on the disease response love animals and had been performing difficult work.

"Having to euthanize animals, having to deal with the emotions of the affected owners, and at the same time having to manage their own emotions is a heavy task to undertake," he said. "Humane euthanasia of the infected and exposed animals is the only way to control and eradicate the disease."

Eradication is the only way to save poultry agriculture in California, for backyard and commercial owners, Dr. Gaitan said.

"For most people, their birds are their life, and we take this situation very seriously and will work together with all of them to minimize the impact this devastating disease can pose," he said.

The state is urging that bird owners in Southern California keep their birds on their properties, bring in no others until the disease is eradicated, and report illnesses and deaths through the Sick Bird Hotline, 866-922-2473.

Related JAVMA content:

Newcastle spreads near Los Angeles (Sept. 15, 2018)

Virulent Newcastle disease hits small flocks in California (July 15, 2018)