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Published June 23, 2015, 09:53 AM

Willmar, Minn., lab playing role as poultry industry looks for answers to bird flu

The biggest lesson from the outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza in Minnesota is that this virus has behaved differently than anything dealt with previously, according to veterinarian Trevor Ames, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota.

WILLMAR, Minn. — The biggest lesson from the outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza in Minnesota is that this virus has behaved differently than anything dealt with previously, according to veterinarian Trevor Ames, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota.

“And so there may need to be changes in what were considered routine and adequate practices going forward with the anticipation that this virus could be around for a while,’’ Ames says.

Researchers are now analyzing data collected during the outbreak from 105 infected sites in Minnesota to understand this virus, and what producers can and should not do to manage it.

“That is really why the research is so vital,’’ Ames says. “Not only to understand what we need to do, but also to understand what we don’t need to do.’’

The disease is responsible for the loss of almost 9 million birds in Minnesota since March.

The state’s poultry and livestock industries have confronted significant disease outbreaks in the past, and researchers working with the industries helped develop successful strategies for them.

While not a direct parallel, Ames points to the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome that struck the state’s swine industry hard in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Producers adopted a variety of management changes over the years to successfully limit the effect of the virus.

Ames is optimistic that the same will occur in the turkey and poultry industry as it contends with this outbreak.

Willmar has an important role in it, he said. The Legislature approved funding to expand the Minnesota Testing Laboratory in Willmar. It will allow for on-site disease testing and earlier diagnosis for producers in the heart of Minnesota’s poultry and turkey producing region, he says.

The Mid-Central Research and Outreach Center on the MinnWest Technology campus led by Dr. Carol Cardona, D.V.M., is working in partnership with industry and federal researchers to understand how this virus moves. They are looking for its presences on surfaces in barns and in the air, and comparing data collected at infected and non-infected sites.

The Legislature has also funded a major upgrade at the 1950s-vintage bio-containment facility on the University of Minnesota campus in St. Paul. The upgrades — which will probably take two years or more to complete — will allow for the type of research needed to understand how the virus is transmitted bird to bird. The facility could also play a critical role in the ability to develop a vaccine for the virus, Ames says.

At this point, researchers can only advise producers to bolster their defenses by improving both biosecurity protocols as well as making upgrades to their facilities.

The disease struck Kandiyohi, Meeker, Stearns and Renville counties hard. The relative abundance of facilities in close proximity to each other means that producers in these counties may need to take greater precautions, he says.

“We don’t know what the disease will look like if and when it reoccurs in the fall. If we don’t prepare for the worst, then we are unprepared,’’ he says. “I think we have to prepare that this could reoccur and that we could be dealing with it for a number of years to come.’’

He also notes the state’s swine industry is on guard and monitoring the disease closely. Pigs have receptors in their lungs that make them vulnerable to influenza viruses.

“We’re thankful for the advances that have occurred in biosecurity in that industry,’’ he says.

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