The avian influenza strain that has decimated flocks of chickens and turkeys in the western United States has not yet made it to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or Delaware. But officials here are on edge, canceling bird shows at fairs and instituting extra precautions.
"We've seen positive birds in three of the four major flight paths in the United States, and to this point the eastern flight path remains unaffected," said Craig Shultz, the director of the bureau of animal health and diagnostic services at the Pennsylvania department of agriculture. "But there's always that possibility."
The higher temperatures of the summer months, which are more inhospitable to the virus, might give the Eastern Seaboard a reprieve. But Shultz said it's quite likely that the bird flu will eventually come to the state.
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
In response, officials decided to suspend all state-sponsored avian competitions, including the 100th Pennsylvania Farm Show in January of 2016.
"I know that many of the families that have been getting ready for these shows for the county fairs are very disappointed, but on the other hand, this is for their protection," said Eva Pendleton, an avian veterinarian at the animal diagnostic laboratory at Penn State University. "Because this virus, if it gets into a poultry flock, it will kill close to 100 percent of the birds. It's a very devastating illness."
Within flocks or between farms, the deadly H5N2 strain can be spread through saliva or feces. The primary concern for regional officials is transmission from a wild bird carrying the virus.
"It's all about premises protection to do everything possible to minimize any contact between migratory birds and domestic birds," said Shultz.
New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher said he isn't worried yet. But the state has issued a poultry disease alert with a fact sheet that owners of both backyard and commercial flocks can consult.
"Regardless of where the birds are, we want to make sure everyone knows in New Jersey what to look for," he said. He estimates there are fewer than 2 million birds in the state.
Wild ducks are thought to have introduced the virus to the United States last December. Since then, nearly 37 million birds have been affected in 15 states. The disease has struck mostly turkeys and egg-laying hens, so consumers may see higher prices for those products, said Pendleton.
No people have contracted the virus, and the CDC says the risk to humans is low.
The only time Pennsylvania experienced an outbreak of this type of avian influenza was back in 1983. According to Shultz, about 15 million birds — totaling $60 million — were lost.