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Bird flu infects millions of chickens in Md., Del. amid broader surge

80 black vultures were also found dead in Harford County from the highly contagious virus

Vultures eat the carcass of a deer at Kingman Island along the Anacostia River. (Dan Rauch/D.C. Department of Energy & Environment)
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Roughly 3.2 million chickens have been confirmed positive with the bird flu at six farms in Maryland and Delaware over the past two months, agriculture officials said Friday, part of a broader problem with the virus that is quietly sweeping across the country.

Eighty black vultures in Maryland’s Harford County also were recently found dead from the highly pathogenic avian influenza, officials said, near wildlife areas along the Susquehanna River.

Maryland and Delaware agriculture authorities said they have had reports of chickens at the farms being infected with the bird flu since February. The vultures were found in the past two weeks.

Thirty-seven million chickens and turkeys have been culled on U.S. farms since February because of the latest outbreak, according to the Agriculture Department, and roughly 950 cases of bird flu have been found in wild birds, including at least 54 bald eagles.

In Virginia, officials said they detected bird flu in February among a “backyard flock” of roughly 90 turkeys, chickens and ducks in Fauquier County. There has been no bird flu detected in D.C., officials said.

“The numbers are just staggering in terms of the poultry,” said Charlie Broaddus, the state veterinarian in Virginia.

One of the biggest factors in the bird flu’s spread this year, he said, is that it’s being carried by wild ducks and geese that are infected but “don’t typically become affected” by it.

“They’re carriers,” Broaddus said, “but the genetic sequence has the potential to make domestic birds much, much sicker.”

Broaddus said the larger farms that have hens producing eggs that “end up in the supermarket” tend to be large-scale operations, where the flu can spread quickly. Sometimes, he said, chickens at farms become infected when a farmer or worker “accidentally tracks through goose droppings near a pond” and then brings it into the chicken facility.

“It takes just one to be infected before they spread it to others,” Broaddus said.

Many wild birds don’t always show signs of the virus, but it can be easily transmitted between birds through their droppings or through respiratory secretions, experts said.

Agricultural officials at the Delaware-Maryland HPAI Joint Information Center said they were concerned about the vultures, because they’re scavengers and “if they eat a bird infected with avian influenza, whether it’s a migratory bird such as a Canadian goose, other waterfowl, or another vulture, they will ingest the virus and then can get sick and die.”

“We want to ensure they are taking steps to stop the spread of the virus so that they don’t inadvertently transport it to other areas heavily populated with wild birds,” said Stacey Hofmann, a spokeswoman for the joint command center.

Officials with the command centers in Maryland and Virginia said they have response teams to quickly “take action” to try to stop the spread of the bird flu and are encouraging farmers to be “proactive in ensuring vultures do not stop at their farms.”

The high number of black vultures found in the wild in Harford County is particularly alarming to some experts, because it means the birds are spreading the virus as they’re eating carcasses.

“That’s a lot of vultures to get the bird flu at once,” said Dan Rauch, the wildlife biologist for the District. “Vultures travel to where their food sources are, so they’re moving all over the place.

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“They feed together and roost together, so that allows this highly pathogenic disease to spread quickly,” he said. The birds then “shed the virus through their saliva, mucus and feces.”

“It gets into the community and sticks around,” Rauch said. “It’s not good.”

Agriculture experts at the joint command center in Maryland and Delaware advised the public to “help limit the spread of the disease by not moving bird droppings via their shoes to other wild-bird habitats.” People should also change their shoes and clean off dirty shoes after they’ve visited a wild or natural area.

Experts said “spraying the bottoms of your shoes with a common household cleaner such as Lysol or a dilute bleach spray will kill the avian influenza virus,” a command center statement said. For those with pet birds or poultry at home, officials recommend you “wash your hands, change clothes, and clean your shoes after visiting areas where wild birds frequent.”

clarification

Agricultural experts do not count individual birds as one “case” of bird flu. This story has been updated.

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