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Bird owners put on alert for Newcastle disease

HENRI BRICKEY
Staff Writer

A highly contagious bird disease capable of killing anything from a chicken to an ostrich is spreading through Southern California and has recently been detected in Riverside County, officials with the state Department of Food and Agriculture said this week.

Exotic Newcastle, as the disease is called, is one of the most infectious diseases affecting poultry and has a death rate of almost 100 percent in unvaccinated flocks, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

The disease poses no threat to humans but has the capability of decimating millions of birds if it gets into commercial stocks like it did 30 years ago.

The first case of the disease was reported on Oct. 1, when it was discovered in some backyard chickens in a Compton neighborhood, said Laticia Rico, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Food and Agriculture in Ontario.

The yard was quarantined, but the disease has since been found in other parts of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties ---- including Norco and Corona. The disease has not been reported in San Diego County.

As of this week, there have been 39 quarantines in the three counties and more than 5,500 effected animals have been destroyed, Rico said.

"We're still in the very early stages of the investigation and it's hard to know if we've contained it," she said.

The disease most commonly infects chickens, Rico said. But other birds are also susceptible to the disease. Officials say the disease may have been brought to the area by Amazon parrots, who are known carriers of the disease but do not show symptoms and can carry the virus for more than 400 days.

"There is illegal bird smuggling in Southern California where exotic birds come in from south of the border," Rico said.

Birds can catch the disease through contact with other infected birds or contaminated materials. Symptoms include sneezing, coughing, nasal discharge and paralysis, according to Department of Agriculture officials, who said that animals infected with the disease often die suddenly without showing any symptoms.

The last major outbreak of Newcastle disease in California occurred in 1971, when it got into the commercial poultry stock and resulted in 12 million birds being destroyed and cost $56 million in eradication efforts, which lasted for three years.

While the state has seen smaller outbreaks of Newcastle disease since the 1971 epidemic, they were all easily contained, according to Rico, who says the current outbreak is the largest since 1971.

No commercial poultry farms in California have reported finding the disease in their flocks as of Tuesday, Rico said.

To prevent the disease from spreading any further, the California Department of Food and Agriculture is urging bird owners not to take birds into or out of the three counties effected by the disease.

Until the disease is under control, the Department of Food and Agriculture is suspending poultry exhibitions at all local fairgrounds, including the Farmers Fair and Festival, which runs from Oct. 19-27 at the Lake Perris Fairgrounds.

"We need to take every precaution necessary," said Lyndal Graff, the fair's general manager. "It's an unfortunate situation for the children raising poultry to show at the fair, but it's a safety issue for everyone involved."

Others were unaware of the potential risk.

Herman DeJong, who owns DeJong's Dairy on Corydon Street in Wildomar, has a petting zoo and farm with close to 50 birds, including peacocks, ducks, geese, doves, finches and chickens.

"I haven't heard anything from the county about it (the disease), and I haven't noticed any problems with any of my birds," DeJong said Wednesday.

Contact staff writer Henri Brickey at (909) 676-4315, Ext. 2616, or hbrickey@californian.com.

10/17/02

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