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By Gig Conaughton, County of San Diego Communications Office

February 28, 2019 (San Diego) - It still has not been detected here, but San Diego County officials are urging backyard bird owners to watch for virulent Newcastle disease, a highly contagious, agriculturally dangerous, bird-killing virus, after the state expanded its quarantine in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

San Diego County’s Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures (AWM) said bird owners should immediately contact the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) hotline at 866-922-BIRD (2473) if they spot symptoms in their birds including: coughing, sneezing, nasal discharge, tremors, twisting of the neck and sudden death.

Virulent Newcastle is almost always fatal to birds, both domestic and wild. Chickens are particularly susceptible to the virus, and outbreaks ravaged California’s egg and poultry industry in 1971 and the early 2000s. There is no cure and even vaccinated flocks can carry the virus.

This week, CDFA expanded its quarantine to include all of Los Angeles County and large parts of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, near the San Diego County border. Officials said virulent Newcastle is spread mainly by people moving sick birds, most often chickens and roosters, and the only way the virus can be stopped is by euthanizing infected birds.

AWM officials said local bird owners can help protect their birds by:

  • Making sure that they, and anyone else working around their birds, wash their hands and scrub their boots before and after entering a poultry area.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting tires and equipment before moving it on and off their property.
  • Isolating any birds returning from shows for 30 days before placing them back in with the rest of the flock.
  • Voluntarily reducing or limiting transportation of their birds as a protective measure, to prevent exposing them to other flocks and birds.

Virulent Newcastle disease is not harmful to people, although in rare cases, people directly exposed to the virus can develop mild fevers and eye infections. The virus does not harm food if eggs and poultry are cooked properly.

The virus is extremely contagious and birds spread it to one another through direct contact, saliva and feces. However, the virus can also be carried to birds and flocks and from place to place by people, on clothing, shoes, automobile tires and equipment.

Previous outbreaks of the virulent Newcastle in California have been eradicated, but at great cost. According to CDFA, a virulent Newcastle disease outbreak in California in 1971 forced nearly 12 million birds to be euthanized at a cost of $56 million. In 2002-03, an outbreak that started in Southern California and spread to Arizona, Nevada and Texas forced 3.16 million birds to be euthanized at a cost of $161 million. Nearly 1 million birds have been euthanized in the current outbreak, which started in a backyard flock in Los Angeles County in May 2018.

The disease has been detected in four commercial operations, but has been mainly spread by backyard flocks, according to CDFA statistics.

Symptoms of virulent Newcastle disease include:

  • Sudden death and increased death loss in flock.
  • Sneezing, gasping for air, nasal discharge, coughing.
  • Greenish, watery diarrhea.
  • Decreased activity, tremors, drooping wings, twisting of head and neck, circling, complete stiffness.
  • Swelling around the eyes and neck.

For more information, go to the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Virulent Newcastle Disease webpage. 

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