Deadly exotic Newcastle outbreaks were all but ignored even before U.S. President Donald Trump furloughed most of the government personnel who could have responded
RIVERSIDE, California–– Pleading for urgent attention to the recent spread of exotic Newcastle disease from southern California cockfighting flocks to commercial egg barns, Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED) moderator and Texas A&M University faculty member Tam Garland––who has shared thousands of previous outbreak warnings over the years––on January 10, 2019 began to sound a bit desperate.
Nine months of warnings
Garland had been telling the 90,000 ProMED readers since May 2018 that the exotic Newcastle disease outbreak had the potential to cause thousands of birds horrific suffering, over and above the other miseries experienced by factory-farmed poultry––and could then lead to the forced “depopulation” of millions.
With most of the staff of most of the federal agencies that might have responded to the crisis on furlough, due to U.S. President Donald Trump’s refusal to endorse funding legislation, the worst finally happened, with hardly anyone left on duty to help deal with it.
Garland was not alone in her anxiety.
Cockfighting link downplayed
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) issued similar warnings even earlier, albeit in terse bureaucratic language appearing mostly concerned with reassuring egg and poultry consumers that exotic Newcastle disease rarely spreads to people, and has never been known to infect anyone just from eating eggs or meat.
ANIMALS 24-7 on September 30, 2018 published a 2,125-word warning to the humane community headlined “Disease linked to cockfighting menaces California poultry industry,” but like the ProMED and USDA-APHIS warnings, it seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Before cockfighting was finally banned in 2008 in all 50 states, at least nominally, anti-cockfighting campaigns were among the high-profile glamour issues addressed by national animal advocacy organizations. After that, though, donor response to fundraising appeals mentioning cockfighting fell off.
Low stakes cockfights are low priority
Much less attention has been paid to enforcing cockfighting bans than was paid to passing them, with the net result that hardly anyone has been motivating law enforcement attention to busting cockfights, especially the low stakes weekend operations that can be found in suburban backyards throughout the U.S. southwest.
Cockfights tend to be raided these days mainly if law enforcement agencies perceive an opportunity to nab drug dealers, gun runners, and other criminals evading warrants, or––sometimes––an opportunity to round up illegal aliens.
Cockfights attracting just the local bad guys and their out-of-town cousins rate a lower priority. Yet low stakes weekend cockfights, involving casual rather than professional gamblers, are those most likely to involve haphazard mixing and mingling of diseased birds, and to be attended by low-wage poultry barn workers who may then inadvertently infect commercial flocks from excreta on shoes and clothing.
Egg & poultry industries also slow to respond
The egg and poultry industry, ironically, with the most to lose to exotic Newcastle disease in monetary terms, also seems slow to respond to what is in truth both a looming humane crisis and a potential economic crisis for agribusiness,
Tim Lundeen of the agribusiness trade journal Feedstuffs on January 9, 2019 reported that USDA-APHIS had confirmed “virulent Newcastle disease in a second commercial poultry flock in California, in a commercial layer flock in Riverside County,” and mentioned that “the finding is part of an outbreak in southern California that began in May 2018 in backyard exhibition birds,” but failed to make the link to gamecocks, for which “backyard exhibition birds” is a euphemism.
Wrote Lundeen, “The initial commercial case was reported on December 16, 2018 in a flock of 110,000 6-week-old layer chickens in Riverside County, according to information submitted to the World Organization for Animal Health.
Toll not updated due to governmental shutdown
According to information from APHIS and the California Department of Food & Agriculture,” Lundeen continued, “231 cases of virulent Newcastle disease were reported in backyard birds between May 18, 2018 and December 20, 2018, but the tally has not been updated since then because of the partial governmental shutdown.”
Within another day, USDA-APHIS disclosed––despite the partial governmental shutdown––that exotic Newcastle disease had been confirmed in two more Riverside County, California commercial flocks.
“APHIS is working closely with the California Department of Food and Agriculture to respond to the finding, limit the disease’s spread in commercial poultry, and then eradicate it. Federal and state partners are conducting additional surveillance and testing in the area, and are working with nearby commercial farms to increase biosecurity to prevent additional disease spread,” the USDA-APHIS announcement said.
Death rate of almost 100% in unvaccinated flocks
Concluded the USDA-APHIS media release, “Virulent Newcastle disease is a contagious and fatal viral disease affecting the respiratory, nervous and digestive systems of birds and poultry. The disease is so virulent that many birds and poultry die without showing any clinical signs. A death rate of almost 100% can occur in unvaccinated poultry flocks. Virulent Newcastle disease can infect and cause death even in vaccinated poultry.
“Clinical signs of virulent Newcastle disease include sudden death and increased death loss in the flock; sneezing; gasping for air; nasal discharge; coughing; greenish, watery diarrhea; decreased activity; tremors; drooping wings; twisting of the head and neck; circling; complete stiffness; and swelling around the eyes and neck.”
Many of these symptoms can also result from ventilation failures in commercial poultry barns, but exotic Newcastle disease represents an amplification of the symptoms from uncomfortable to deadly.
“Very sad news”
“This is very sad news,” posted Garland. “No producer/owner wants to have birds euthanized. However, very strict biosecurity must be practiced to prevent this from spreading any further. This includes any workers who may have birds of their own.
“If the privately owned flock is ill,” Garland suggested, rather unrealistically, “then the worker needs to notify the commercial flock owner where the worker is employed.”
But this would amount to the worker all but admitting to the employer that the worker has participated in a criminal pursuit. This could cost the worker his job, and if the worker is not a U.S. citizen, could lead to deportation.
“What is very alarming,” Garland continued, “is that in 2003, the same disease started in backyard flocks, a euphemism for avian athletes or fighting birds, and moved to commercial flocks. We are seeing the same alarming pattern. To date there is not a plan for handling this situation. There has been no plan published or announced on how to keep this disease from spreading to many other commercial flocks, as happened in 2003. I fear we are seeing a repeat of history.”
Posted ProMED infectious diseases moderator Martin Hugh-Jones back on June 4, 2018, soon after the first reports of Newcastle outbreaks in the Los Angeles area surfaced, “This appears to be a repeat of 2003, in that these flocks are of fighting cocks, probably all with a common source event. It would not be a surprise if this virus has a Mexican origin.”
Mexico, a longtime known Newcastle disease reservoir, declared itself free of Newcastle in 2015, after a five-year eradication drive, two years after the most recent Mexican outbreak was detected.
But cockfighting remains legal in Mexico, with little or no health surveillance of the gamecock traffic from ring to ring, while backyard hen flocks are kept at many times the estimated U.S. density of one flock per hundred homes.
Building a wall would not help
No, by the way, building a higher, stronger wall between the U.S. and Mexico would not help to stop the spread of exotic Newcastle disease.
The U.S. and Mexico did about $800 million worth of poultry trade in 2016, mostly in U.S.-raised chickens being sold south. Mexico is the biggest foreign buyer of U.S. poultry and poultry products, purchasing twice as much as any other nation.
This legal traffic offers plenty of opportunity for birds, excreta, and disease-carrying pathogens of all sorts to move back and forth in trucks, crates, and on workers’ boots and overalls.
Cockfighters reimbursed for losses
Frustration has long smoldered among both humane law enforcement personnel and animal disease control workers, on both sides of the Mexican border, over the failure of other agencies, the judiciary at multiple levels, and legislators to address cockfighting as both a serious crime and a disease threat.
Indeed, some of the cockfighters who spread Newcastle disease throughout Southern California and into Arizona between November 2002 and May 2003, by illegally transporting gamecocks between fighting pits, apparently reaped a financial windfall through a U.S. federal compensation program, according to documents obtained by Associated Press under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The USDA paid compensation of $22.3 million to poultry owners whose infected or exposed flocks were killed as part of the 2002-2003 exotic Newcastle eradication effort.
Feds paid 26 times more for gamecocks as for laying hens
Most of the 3.7 million birds who were destroyed were egg-laying hens, for whom the USDA paid $2.89 apiece, according to Associated Press: $10.7 million.
The other 144,000 birds ordered killed were characterized mainly as gamefowl, including thousands of roosters and brood cocks whom authorities believed were used for fighting, Associated Press reported.
For these birds the USDA paid an average of $79.31 each, with some roosters and brood cocks valued as high as $500, according to the records. Suspected cockfighters collected $11.4 million.
The worst-ever outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease arrived with smuggled wild-caught parrots in 1971, and by 1973 had spread to most states with significant poultry industries. More than 12 million hens and other birds were killed to stop the 1971-1973 exotic Newcastle pandemic.