SAN DIEGO — A new detection of virulent Newcastle disease was reported by the California Department of Food and Agriculture this weekend. In a Facebook post attributed to State Veterinarian Dr. Annette Jones, the agency said the disease was detected on Aug. 30 on a property in central San Diego.  

Ramona residents said authorities visited properties in the area this weekend to euthanize chickens near the location of the detection. 

Ana Unibe brought several chickens to her home in June. They were just four weeks old and were expected to soon start laying eggs, she said. 

"We trained them and everything. They knew our voices, our whistles," Unibe said. "They were little family members to us."

But on Saturday the USDA and CDFA came to Unibe's door she says after a neighbor's chicken died from VND. 

"Being our first chickens, it was a very new experience," she said. 

Similar accounts were reported on a Facebook page dedicated to reporting public safety issues in East County.   

The incident marks the first detection of VND in San Diego County since an outbreak started in May 2018.

“This case was identified when a private veterinarian submitted dead birds to the California Animal Health and Food Safety (CAHFS) Laboratory System,” the CDFA's statement read in part. [See the agency’s full post below.] 

It has largely been contained to Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties, which are under quarantine. This means poultry - mostly chickens - can't be moved in or out of those areas.

Since the outbreak began, CDFA has euthanized 1.2 million birds - 120,000 from residential, backyard-type coops and the rest from industrial sites. 

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CDFA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were working through Labor Day weekend on control measures including:  

  • Restriction of bird movement  
  • Mandatory euthanasia of infected and exposed birds  
  • Surveillance testing near the property where infection was detected 

The agencies were working to euthanize poultry from four homes - the initial source plus three other homes withing 825 feet of the source property - which had more than 50 birds.

There has been controversy surrounding the CDFA's mandatory euthanizing policy. The agency does not test birds within the radius established but instead euthanizes any bird in that area. They do test other birds outside of the radius for infections as part of their investigation.

"Just because bird looks healthy it doesn’t mean it is healthy," said Sandy Cooney with the CDFA. "We have seen time and again where people believe their birds are healthy and those birds, in turn, infect other birds and spread the disease."

Some bird-owners on social media claimed they were going to remove their birds from their property essentially to hide them from the USDA and CDFA. 

"We would have eradicated this disease months ago if people had not moved birds," said Cooney.

Homeowners in Ramona said they had to give CDFA and the USDA consent before their chickens were euthanized. One person said they were considering fighting it but that the process is lengthy and homeowners usually lose so they opted to consent. 

While Unibe says she now understands the process, but it doesn't make it any less painful to say goodbye to her beloved birds. 

"There are businesses here that rely on the sale of chickens [and] the eggs and that's a big deal," said Unibe. "I just had seven little chickens. There are some people who have 20 or more. It's a big deal."

As of Sunday, the CDFA was not expanding its quarantine to include San Diego until they determine the origination.

According to the USDA’s web page on VND, there have been 449 confirmed locations in California infected with VND so far this year. The agency says the disease is one of the most serious poultry diseases worldwide with a nearly 100% death rate in unvaccinated chickens.  

“The disease is so virulent that many birds and poultry die without showing any clinical signs,” the USDA states online.  

The disease is spread when healthy birds come in direct contact with bodily fluids from sick birds, according to the USDA. It can also be spread by people who have worked with infected birds who then move to other areas and transport it on their clothing or shoes. 

There is no treatment or cure for VND. 

Authorities say VND is not a food safety concern and that properly cooked poultry products are safe to eat. There is also no risk to humans however some handlers have gotten mild illnesses after encountering the disease coming down with something similar to pink eye. 

Authorities said the source of the outbreak is unknown. 

The agency said residents should report any sick birds immediately to the Sick Bird Hotline at 866-922-2473.  

Full statement from CDFA:

Virulent Newcastle Disease Update from State Veterinarian Dr. Annette Jones:

There was a new detection of virulent Newcastle disease (VND) on August 30 at a property in central San Diego County. This is the first detection of VND in San Diego County since this incident began in May 2018.

This case was identified when a private veterinarian submitted dead birds to the California Animal Health and Food Safety (CAHFS) Laboratory System.

VND response team members from the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are working through the holiday weekend to establish control measures including restriction of bird movement, mandatory euthanasia of infected and exposed birds, and surveillance testing near the property where infection was detected. We are moving quickly to investigate the origin of disease as well as any movement of birds or equipment that could carry infection.

Detections of VND have decreased greatly over the last few months. Our priority remains to stop the spread of the virus and eradicate the disease. We have made significant progress toward this goal by identifying and clearing remaining pockets of disease, but this case reminds all bird owners in Southern California to remain aware of VND signs, practice good biosecurity, stop illegal movement of birds from property to property, and report any sick birds immediately to the Sick Bird Hotline, 866-922-2473. More information about VND, including biosecurity guidelines to keep birds healthy, is available on the CDFA virulent Newcastle disease web page.