A flock of non-commercial chickens south of El Paso is suspected of having Exotic Newcastle Disease (END), a foreign-origin virus that is deadly to poultry and birds. A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) veterinarian examined the birds Saturday, April 5, after receiving a report of high death loss in the flock. While awaiting laboratory confirmation of the presumptive diagnosis, which should be completed by April 11, a team of state and federal animal health officials has gathered on site to contain the flock and to assess the area to determine if infection may have spread to nearby flocks, or if birds or poultry might have been exposed to the sick birds recently transported from the area.

If the disease is confirmed by the National Veterinary Service Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, Texas would be the fourth state to be stricken by this foreign poultry disease since October 2002, when an END outbreak was detected in California. Since then, the virus also has been found — and eradicated — in backyard flocks in Arizona and Nevada.

“An END outbreak creates an extremely serious situation for bird owners in Texas. With the possibility that this disease is in our state, we again remind bird owners that they must follow strict biosecurity procedures and movement restrictions in order to guard against the accidental introduction of disease to their flocks, to other backyard or hobby flocks, or to the Texas and New Mexico commercial poultry industry,” warned Dr. Bob Hillman, Texas state veterinarian and executive director for the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC), the state's livestock and poultry health regulatory agency.

“Bird and poultry owners must not move birds from the El Paso area,” he said. “When buying birds or poultry, ensure also that they did not originate from quarantined areas in southern California. Because END can spread from direct contact, keep newly purchased birds isolated for at least 30 days. Maintain records on new birds, (so we can trace a problem) source more quickly.”

Hillman explained that, while END usually has an incubation period of two to 15 days, pet birds, especially parrots, can be infectious for more than a year, without exhibiting any signs of illness. Commonly, END can cause birds to sneeze or gasp and develop a greenish, watery diarrhea. Birds may also develop muscle tremors, a twisting of the head and neck, complete paralysis, or a swelling around the eyes and neck. In many cases, sudden death loss is the only sign that a problem exists within the flock.

“END does not affect humans, and chicken and eggs are safe to eat. For the poultry and bird industry, however, END has deadly — and expensive consequences. Today, more than 1,400 animal health veterinarians and inspectors from across the country are working on the END outbreak in southern California, which so far, has spread to 22 commercial poultry flocks. Another 2,400 backyard flocks have either been infected or exposed to the fast moving virus, and about 15,500 flocks remain quarantined.

As of early April, more than 3.5 million birds in southern California have been destroyed to stop the spread of the disease. In late winter, END also was detected in several backyard flocks in Nevada and Arizona, but fortunately these small outbreaks were eradicated quickly.”

“Do not take chances with your birds,” Hillman said. “By following some biosecurity practices, you can reduce the chance of infection in your flock. However, if you see signs of illness or sudden death loss in your flock, call your private veterinary practitioner or the TAHC immediately.”

The TAHC hotline is in operation 24 hours a day at 1-800-550-8242. TAHC veterinarians, trained as foreign animal disease diagnosticians, work with private veterinary practitioners and poultry disease experts free of charge to assess the flock and collect samples for laboratory testing.

“Please, keep an eye on your birds and poultry. Diseases spread quickly, so immediate reporting is vital to saving the industry money, time and heartbreak. The sooner we know of a disease problem, the sooner we can deal with it and stop the outbreak,” said Hillman.

Good biosecurity practices include:

  • Don't keep pet birds on commercial poultry operations. Don't allow employees to maintain their own birds or poultry. Your staff could carry bacteria or viruses from their birds to yours. Supply clean clothes and footwear, or disposable coveralls and shoe covers, for your employees to wear when working with your birds.

  • Disinfect tires and the under carriages of all vehicles as they enter or leave the farm or premises (no ‘germs in,’ no ‘germs out’). In humid, warm weather, viruses can live on surfaces for weeks, so don't hope that they will ‘wear off’ trucks or tires.

  • Going to the feed store or coffee shop? Don't work with your birds until you've changed into clean clothes and disinfected footwear. Viruses can be tracked into or from stores on boots and clothing.

  • Avoid visiting other poultry operations. Dangerous bacteria and viruses can be transported from one farm to another.