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Agriculture department may call on National Guard to help tackle bird flu outbreak

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Two recent outbreaks of a highly contagious virus among flocks at two commercial poultry breeders have experts at the Alabama Department of Agriculture considering help from the National Guard.

More than 49 million cases of avian influenza, commonly called bird flu, have been reported in the United States since 2022. While the virus is rarely contracted by humans, its contagiousness can spell disaster for breeders and farmers, particularly in Alabama where poultry is the second-largest agricultural industry.

During a meeting of the Alabama State Board of Agriculture and Industries on Tuesday, Tony Frazier, the state veterinarian, spoke to the scope of the recent outbreak.

“What we’ve faced in the last couple of weeks is as real as it gets,” he said.

Within the past month, Frazier said that there have been two outbreaks of bird flu in Alabama: one in Chilton County near Montgomery and another in Marshall County near Huntsville.

Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Rick Pate.

In Chilton County, Frazier said that a game breeder facility reported an unusual amount of mortalities among his flock, mortalities that later tested positive for the virus. With a flock of more than 300,000, which included pheasants, quail, chukar and ducks, Frazier said that the pheasants in particular suffered the brunt of the outbreak.

“Those pheasants were dying as we stood there watching them; hundreds of pheasants in several pens,” he said. 

“It’s pretty dramatic to see this virus, it’s a real thing. Not only is it a physical drain, it’s an emotional drain when you see literally thousands and thousands of animals dying at the hand of this virus.”

The outbreak in Marshall County, Frazier said, was at a pullet farm, where the owner reported a similar case of an unusual amount of mortalities.

With the sheer scope of affected birds, Frazier said that very specific containment methods have to be used, methods that primarily require large amounts of wood shavings and water.

“There has to be a carbon source and a water source for this composting to go on, so to date, on the Marshall County event, we’ve used 2,000 cubic feet of wood chips and shavings,” he said. 

“To date, we’ve used 55,000 gallons of water on this farm, just for the composting. One 18-wheeler transfer truck can only carry 5,000 gallons, and we’ve already used 55,000 gallons of water.”

Alabama Veterinarian Tony Frazier.

Already a strain on local and Agriculture Department resources, Frazier warned that another outbreak could spell disaster for local breeders and farmers.

Exports, Frazier also said, could be compromised as well, exacerbating the need for assistance were another outbreak to occur.

“There’s certain countries that are not going to be taking Alabama products, so the quicker we get the composting or get them buried, the quicker we get the companies back into business,” he said.

If needed, future containment efforts may require Gov. Kay Ivey’s approval of National Guard assistance, Frazier later told Alabama Daily News.

“The governor would potentially be important in this deal when it comes to a response,” Frazier told ADN. 

“We didn’t request this, but if there’s another multi-front event, we probably need to activate the Emergency Management Agency; that takes a call from the commissioner to the governor (to say) we need the National Guard. They belong to the governor, as well as the price tag. That’s the governor’s call.”

Pate said he wouldn’t be opposed to such a request.

“You just follow the science wherever it takes you,” Pate told ADN.

“I feel like the governor would do anything we ask her; she’s from the Black Belt, she’s from a rural county, and so if there’s a need there that we need to take this thing up a notch, I wouldn’t question asking her, and I wouldn’t think she would dismiss my ask.”

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