Newcastle disease may pose threat to Oregon poultry


CORVALLIS - Oregon's poultry industry - worth nearly $100 million annually - desperately needs the help of both big and small flock producers to reduce the chance of flocks becoming infected with Exotic Newcastle Disease, warns an Oregon State University expert.

The Oregon poultry industry consists of chicken meat and chicken egg production.

Exotic Newcastle Disease (END) is a respiratory disease that kills more than 90 percent of the birds exposed to it, said James Hermes, a poultry specialist with the OSU Extension Service. Virtually all types of birds are susceptible to END, but the disease does not affect human health, Hermes pointed out.

First identified in southern California in October of 2002, the disease first seemed to be confined to small game fowl and backyard chicken flocks.

"But in spite of intense biosecurity measures, including restricting bird traffic, depopulating infected flocks, door-to-door searches for infected birds, and isolating commercial poultry flocks, the bad news came in late December," said Hermes. "Exotic Newcastle Disease was found in a commercial flock of layers, and has since been found in four more flocks (in California). In addition, it has been found in Nevada, near Las Vegas."

The outbreak has not yet been reported in Oregon.

Since the end of 2002, the USDA has placed a federal quarantine on the southern California area where the outbreak occurred, stopping the movement of all birds or bird products from diseased areas.

Hermes stressed that all Oregon poultry producers, whether they have a backyard flock of six birds or have a commercial enterprise with thousands of birds, should learn about END and pay close attention to the potential for this disease to spread north into Oregon.

"Exotic Newcastle Disease is well known by larger poultry producers," said Hermes. "Its mere mention sends shivers up the spines of even the most stalwart in the industry. Though it is well known by producers for its devastating effect, this disease is virtually unknown to most people, including many in the agricultural sector."

Hermes worries that small backyard producers may be unaware of the disease and thus unwittingly contribute to the threat of its potential spread into Oregon.

"All producers, large and small, must isolate themselves from sources of infection, other flocks of birds," he warned. "Traffic from flock to flock is the most common method of spreading this disease. And many times, the small home flock of chickens will become infected with disease organisms, particularly END, before the commercial flocks."

Small flock producers should promptly report their sick birds to authorities, said Hermes.

"If you have birds or know of birds, chickens or other species, that are showing the signs of END, it is imperative that a proper diagnosis is obtained to rule out this disease," stressed Hermes.

Persons with sick or fresh dead birds should call the OSU Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in Corvallis at 541-737-3261, or contact Hermes at 541-737-2254.

"Proper diagnosis of sick or dead birds is very important," Hermes said. "The primary symptom of END in chickens is respiratory in nature - labored breathing, coughing, sneezing, and drainage from nose or mouth. Other symptoms may be lethargy, head bobbing or neck twisting and malformed eggs, in addition to others.

"The worst part is that nearly 100 percent of the birds exposed to END will become sick," Hermes added, "and more than 90 percent will die of the disease."

Though Oregon's commercial poultry flocks are hundreds of miles from the quarantined areas of California, Oregon's commercial poultry industry has heightened biosecurity to reduce the possibility of infection in their flocks, said Hermes. Newcastle disease is caused by a virus that is usually confined to the tropical areas of the globe. It can be found naturally in numerous species of birds found in these regions.

"When contained, it poses little threat to commercial poultry in the United States and particularly in Oregon," said Hermes. "However, occasionally it finds its way from the tropics, crossing international borders, usually by smugglers of pet or domestic birds, and into the highly susceptible birds in commercial poultry flocks in the U.S."

The California Dept. of Food and Agriculture has euthanized hundreds of small flocks and most of the infected commercial flocks, totaling nearly two million birds so far.

During the last major outbreak in California in 1971, about 12 million birds were euthanized before the END crisis concluded. The estimated loss was $56 million.

Hermes is grateful that the disease is limited to birds.

"The good news is that END, while devastating to poultry and other birds, is not infectious to people or other mammalian livestock or pets," he said. "The poultry and egg supply remains safe to consume."