For animal health officials across the country, one of the most dreaded events, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) has arrived full force, spreading like wild fire throughout the country, infecting commercial flocks, backyard flocks and wild birds.

The toll on animals and farmers continues to amass.

Recent reports indicate that the virus can be transmitted through the air between barns and animal facilities.

In a study commissioned by the USDA, as reported by the University of Minnesota

Evidence of the H5N2 avian influenza virus has been found in air samples collected in and near infected Minnesota poultry barns, a researcher said today, supporting the suspicion that the virus may go airborne for short distances, while Iowa reported seven new H5 outbreaks involving 4 million chickens and an unknown number of turkeys.

U of Minnesota scientists, collecting data from affected farms for the study, reported:

Our results indicated that influenza genetic material can be detected in air samples collected inside and immediately outside of infected poultry facilities. We still don’t know whether virus was viable or not, and those analyses are in progress . . . So far we have shown that HPAI [highly pathogenic avian influenza] can be aerosolized from infected facilities . . . However, the implications of these findings in terms of understanding the transmission of HPAI between flocks needs further investigation.

There should be no surprise about the ability of this virus to travel by air or to be carried from farm to farm on contaminated shoes, vehicles, or other equipment.

During the HPAI outbreak in 1983, chickens housed in barns closest to a road in south Jersey frequented by feed trucks from Pennsylvania, the epicenter of that outbreak, became infected with the virus.  The New Jersey Department of Agriculture, based on a request from concerned farmers, introduced a regulation which permitted the Department to route potentially contaminated trucks around farms to protect the animals from airborne spread through the barns ventilation system.

During the 2002 low pathogenic avian influenza outbreak in Virginia, the movement of virus spread to farms either directly or on contaminated equipment. Positive samples of the virus were isolated from interior brake pedals of delivery trucks taken while studying the potential transmission of the virus in New Jersey’s live bird markets.

Because of the ease of spread of the virus, biosecurity protocols must be comprehensive and rigorously enforced.  But even that may not be enough to stem the tide.

Fortunately, the virus generally dies out with increasing temperatures.

USDA and producers may have enough time between the end of this outbreak and the next flu season to develop and administer vaccines and avoid another animal health disaster.