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South Dakota leaders search for lessons after bird flu

South Dakota State University Extension Veterinarian and Associate Professor Dr. Russ Daly was busy earlier this year, at the height of the bird flu in South Dakota.

Russ Daly
South Dakota State University Extension Veterinarian and Associate Professor Dr. Russ Daly speaks about the impact of avian flu on South Dakota Wednesday during Dakotafest at the Schlaffman Farm in Mitchell. (Marcus Traxler/Forum News Service)
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South Dakota State University Extension Veterinarian and Associate Professor Dr. Russ Daly was busy earlier this year, at the height of the bird flu in South Dakota.

The lab at the university in Brookings was operating at full-tilt, nearly 24 hours per day and seven days a week, testing samples and determining results for farmers who hoped their farms weren't infected with the deadly disease that wiped out 1.1 million turkeys and chickens in South Dakota.

Daly presented an update Aug. 19 on what has been learned in the two months since the bird flu died down in South Dakota, during a forum hosted by SDSU Extension at Dakotafest on the Schlaffman Farm in Mitchell. Daly pointed out the 24-7 workload in South Dakota as one of the positive things South Dakota did compared to other states.

"There were labs in other states that said, 'We know you got this going on, but it's 5 p.m. on Friday, and we'll see you again on Monday.' Daly recalled. "Well, that doesn't cut it when you have these big flocks that need to have a diagnosis."

Daly said many of the birds affected looked sleepy and drugged, and weren't able to move, or they had trouble breathing, because influenza frequently attacks the respiratory systems.

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He said handling the incident in the state was helpful in keeping the death toll in check, especially because the bird flu commonly was in flocks for a few days before death loss would become apparent at farms.

"We had a lot of things going for us," he said. "We had a very quick and efficient diagnostic process, and we took in those samples on a very regular basis."

But the disease - officially known as H5N2 highly-pathogenic bird flu - still has questions, including how exactly it got to the U.S. and what can be done to stop future strains from having a debilitating effect on animals, or if the strain was resistant-enough, to humans.

South Dakota had 10 farms impacted in nine counties, with the last of those detections coming June 1. Those counties were McPherson, Roberts, Spink, Beadle, Kingsbury, Moody (which had two cases), McCook, Hutchinson and Yankton counties. All but one of the impacted farms had commercial turkey operations. Nationwide, 48 million birds were impacted on 223 farms between December 2014 and June 2015.

Daly admitted investigating how the avian flu ended up here is a challenge. He said viruses can move from waterfowl, such as ducks or geese, who will migrate from north to south through what are called flyways. The flyway through South Dakota runs from central Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. Farther north, waterfowl frequently interact with birds from Asia's flyway, meaning the strains can cross and the viruses can change.

"It's kind of hard, because all we have to go on is surveys and observations," he said.

There are a few theories about how the avian flu got started, Daly said, including that bird droppings could have gotten into corn that was then used for feed, or that geese could have infected corn last fall and the strain could have lived through the winter. Another possibility is that wind could have pushed the strain into a barn and infected animals last December.

The state has canceled bird exhibitions, including shows at the county and state levels, to minimize risks that might be involved. Daly said if the state and region can get through this fall and next spring without any issues, he doesn't see why the bird shows couldn't come back in 2016.

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Daly said there are questions about the best way to ethically "depopulate," or kill, infected birds, while minimizing the risk to other farms. That's because crews that go into barns to spray foam on the birds, or others who might be cleaning barns or investigating the problem, could carry the disease unintentionally.

"The biosecurity is the biggest concern, and I think it's the takeaway from all of this," he said. "It's not that they're intentionally trying to put the farms in jeopardy, but it's a concern about what we can be doing to minimize risk."

Daly also fielded a South Dakotan concern: why hasn't the virus affected the pheasant population? He said there hasn't been much impact on wild chickens or turkeys, and wild birds just aren't at the same risk as those kept captive.

"The GF&P has been repeatedly testing birds, and they haven't found anything," he said. "That would seem to be a good thing for our state this year."

Related Topics: SOUTH DAKOTA
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