Indiana is training up to 300 prisoners how to cull poultry flocks infected by viruses.
It’s one of several precautions the state is taking to prevent a new strain of the avian flu from taking hold in the state.
Indiana has been fortunate so far. Two strains of avian flu H5N2 and H5N8 have killed about 10 percent of the poultry industry’s laying flock nationally and about 7 percent of the turkey flock.
Indiana has only had one case of the H2N8 virus affecting a backyard flock in May. The virus poses no risk to human health, but it is fatal to birds and spreads quickly, often wiping out entire chicken or turkey flocks.
In response, the Indiana State Board of Animal Health is partnering with the Department of Corrections to train low-level offenders at several locations across the state to euthanize and properly dispose of poultry that test positive for the virus.
“This is an unprecedented event,” Denise Derrer, a spokeswoman for the Indiana State Board of Animal Health, says about the virus. “We are working with the industry, doing individual with their companies and individuals sites to make sure they are ready and can respond if we need to depopulate birds and have to do disposal and cleaning and disinfecting of the facility, which could be a very big job, especially for some of the larger operations we would have in the state.”
Health officials also banned co-mingling of birds where people bring birds from different areas together and then redistribute them as they might at state and county fairs.
Paul Brennan, Indiana State Poultry Association executive vice president and the state representative for the USDA’s poultry disease control program known as the National Poultry Improvement Plan, considers the state’s precautions “very warranted.”
“There’s a lot of risk here,” he says. “This disease is still growing. There’s nothing keeping it from Indiana except our good fortune and every effort to keep ourselves biosecure.”
The control area in Whitley County surrounding the backyard flock affected by the virus was lifted Sunday, but Indiana’s poultry industry is still being affected.
Several countries, including Mexico, have issued bans on poultry exported from Indiana.
It will likely be another few months before those bans are lifted.
Brennan says there is not an estimate on how much money the virus has cost Indiana, but he points out it is much lower than other states, such as Iowa, where commercial poultry flocks have been hit the hardest.
How The Avian Flus Got Here
H5N2 and H5N8 are mutations of other avian flus that first came to the U.S. from Asia.
Bird migration patterns tend to follow ones of several major routes, known as flyways. They often overlap and span continents.
The Pacific flyway, for example, often overlaps with Asian flyways, which is how viruses spread from Asia to the U.S.
In the case of H5N2 and H5N8, the Asian virus mixed with North American versions of avian flu and created new strains.
As mentioned, the virus is not a food safety threat, but the viruses first symptom is often death, making it difficult for poultry producers to know if their flock is infected without regular testing.