ABOVE: Jack Gelb is a professor of avian virology and director of the Avian Biosciences Center in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
When avian flu knocks, UD’s Avian Biosciences Center is ready to help contain the threat. Director Jack Gelb gives us a look into the center’s ever-vigilant role in helping growers—from local to global—protect the health of their flocks.
Q. Why did you pursue a career in avian science?
A. I came into avian science through an interest in viruses. During my senior year at UD, I enrolled in an advanced virology course taught by Dr. John Rosenberger and liked it so much I ended up accepting an offer to study with him in graduate school. I then attended the University of Georgia for my Ph.D. and continued my focus on poultry virology.
Q. What does the Avian Biosciences Center do?
A. Our mission is virtually the same as the nation’s Land Grant system, but with a focus on poultry and avian sciences. We teach and train undergraduate and graduate students, perform needed research, and transfer new knowledge generated through that work to support poultry production and the larger avian science community.
We also work closely with the USDA, the Department of Agriculture in both Delaware and Maryland, and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. Our UD Poultry Health System—the center’s disease diagnostic arm—is a member of USDA’s National Animal Health Laboratory Network, which specializes in surveillance for diseases such as avian influenza in poultry and wild birds.
Q. What’s the risk of avian flu in our region?
A. Delaware and neighboring states have much to lose in an avian flu outbreak. Delmarva, consisting of Delaware (Del), the eastern shores of Maryland (mar), and Virginia (va) is one of the most productive and efficient broiler chicken production regions in the world. At any point in time, approximately 100 million broiler chickens are being raised in the region, with Sussex County, Delaware, ranking first in production. Across Delmarva, the value of broiler chickens raised exceeded $3 billion in 2014. All of this means a disease like highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) can wipe out a huge economic driver for the region and change a way of life of family farming and land preservation.
Q. How has the center responded to the bird flu crisis?
A. During the 2015 outbreak in Minnesota, Dan Hougentogler, one of our research associates, deployed to that state, and Dr. Eric Benson and instructor Bob Alphin provided expertise in depopulating infected poultry.
Locally, we provide vigilant surveillance and testing of flock health, training for industry and government workers, and laboratory research on vaccines. In 2004, our Lasher Laboratory in Georgetown was the first diagnostic facility in the U.S. to use a then-new research procedure called real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction for the diagnosis of avian influenza in poultry. The rapid three-hour turnaround time versus the several days required of previous tests proved critical in limiting the outbreak to just three farms. Two years earlier, flocks in Virginia were devastated by a similar avian flu virus that resulted in the deaths of 4.75 million poultry.
Q. What kinds of advances has the center made?
A. Here are a few highlights to put our work in perspective: Our faculty have discovered many new poultry viruses, studied the diseases caused by the viruses, and developed vaccines to control them, benefitting farmers, production companies and consumers locally and throughout the world. Dr. Brian Ladman and I recently received a new grant from USDA to evaluate vaccines for the control of HPAI in chickens.
Additionally, our scientists developed the foam-based technology used for humane emergency poultry depopulation in avian flu outbreaks.This USDA- approved technology is widely used in the U.S.
We also help other labs improve their capabilities to respond to disease outbreaks through such programs as our USDA-supported emergency poultry disease certificate course, which has trained participants from 64 countries, and our new veterinary diagnostic laboratory quality assurance (VDLQA) certificate program, which begins this year.
Q. How do you approach an emergency bird flu situation?
A. Avian influenza outcomes, like those of cancer and other potentially fatal diseases, are time-dependent. Recognition at the earliest stage of the disease is critical. But unlike cancer, the situation with avian flu is more complex because the virus is highly contagious and it will multiply to enormous concentrations in poultry and spread via the air and by off-farm movement of infected poultry. Flocks infected with the highly pathogenic virus that occurred in the Midwest last year will die at very high rates. All normal farm activities must cease immediately when avian flu strikes, and the farm and the region must be prepared to implement an emergency biosecurity plan.
Delaware is well prepared for avian flu. A major part of the emergency plan is surveillance testing of any flock suspected to have flu. Samples from the suspect flock and surrounding farms will be tested by our UD labs, and those found to be positive will be depopulated within 24 hours of detection. Emergency flock depopulation is an essential tool in disease management as it ends animal suffering and, importantly, stops the shedding of the virus into the environment.
Q. Where else has UD shared its avian science expertise?
A. Our scientists and students have visited most if not all U.S. states that produce poultry, as well as Mexico, Central and South America, Africa and Europe, as well as China.
Q. What do you do when you are not chasing down bird flu and other avian diseases?
A. My wife, Becky, and I love spending time with our five young grandchildren, and we enjoy visiting Bethany Beach. While I don’t raise chickens, I do enjoy bird-watching at home in Landenberg, Pennsylvania. That’s plenty for me!
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