PALMDALE — Owners of chickens and other fowl are advised to be vigilant against Virulent Newcastle Disease, a viral disease that is almost certain to quickly kill birds that contract it and can be spread between birds or by people or tools contaminated by the virus.
An outbreak of the disease over the past 15 months in Southern California has meant the loss of 1.2 million birds, said Julianna Lenoch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The losses are devastating” from an outbreak, she said, in terms of birds and economic impact when commercial producers are involved. An earlier outbreak in 2002-2003 led to a $5 billion economic loss in Southern California.
The federal agency and the California Department of Food and Agriculture have created a joint team to address the outbreak, and presented information on the disease and steps to contain it during a town hall Thursday in Palmdale.
Virulent Newcastle Disease can infect chickens, turkeys, doves, pigeons, ducks and geese.
It has a 90% mortality rate, and there is no treatment for the disease, which has a rapid onset. Lenoch spoke of cases where owners noticed something amiss with their birds in the evening and the flock was dead by morning.
“They get exposed, they get sick and they’re dying very rapidly,” she said. “A lot of time, the first sign is death.”
Symptoms include respiratory problems, swelling and oozing eyes and diarrhea. Neurological problems such as craning their neck, staggering or convulsively flapping wings can also occur.
A vaccine is available but not recommended because it is not completely effective and can cause the vaccinated birds to become carriers of the disease to others.
The disease is not dangerous to humans, who may experience a mild form of pink eye should they handle a diseased bird and touch their eyes, Lenoch said. Eating properly cooked chicken or eggs is not a concern for contracting the disease.
The virus may be transmitted by bird-to-bird contact — for example in exhibitions or at feed stores — any time birds may come in contact with one another. For that reason, events such as the upcoming Antelope Valley Fair and Alfalfa Festival have canceled their poultry exhibitions during the outbreak.
The virus can also spread through the secretions and feces of infected birds. For instance, someone who walked through a yard with infected birds, then into another space with birds could transmit the disease on their boots or hands, Lenoch said. The same goes for tools and other equipment that must be disinfected between uses to prevent transmission.
Since it was first reported in Los Angeles County in May 2018, the disease has been found through four counties in Southern California and led to quarantines for Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. A smaller outbreak was found in Ventura County.
Even though the disease has not been reported in the Antelope Valley, the area remains part of the quarantine area that encompasses all of Los Angeles County and bird owners may be visited by officials for testing to ensure the disease is not present here.
The disease has been found in the High Desert communities of Hesperia and Victorville.
The last positive case for Virulent Newcastle Disease was reported on June 4, but extensive testing continues, even in areas where it hasn’t been found before to ensure the outbreak has been stopped before the quarantine may be lifted.
“The name of the game right now is surveillance testing,” Lenoch said.
There is no time frame yet for when the quarantine may be lifted, she said.
People who suspect they have a sick bird or have a bird die on their property should immediately call the sick bird hotline at 866-922-2473 so a team member can check for disease. Dead birds should be double-bagged in plastic and the outside disinfected.
“If you or anyone you know has a bird that has died, we really want to know about it so we are able to test and determine if Newcastle is present or something else,” Lenoch said.
The best means of protecting your birds and preventing spread of the disease is to keep them in place and don’t move them in and out your property. Do not share tools or equipment, especially without disinfection and avoid letting visitors into your yard.
Even when a quarantine is not in place, it is a good practice when taking birds to another area, say for an exhibition, to keep them away from other birds for 30 days after to ensure they have not become infected, Lenoch said.