Anyone who keeps just a few chickens in a so-called backyard operation, has the potential to impact the entire poultry industry for the state, and more.

Because that impact can be negative, bio-security measures should be in place with all flocks.

That was the message Dr. Terry H. Conger, an epidemiologist who covers the states of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, and Dr. F. Dustan Clark with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service was spreading last week in Booneville in the first of several meetings scheduled in response to an Avian Influenza incident in Scott County.

Since Arkansas ranks second in the nation in broiler production, third in turkey production and 10th in egg production — $36 billion to the economy in 2010, according to Conger — the potential damage cannot be overstated. In addition to possible impact to human health.

"Your role if you have a flock that is sickly, you need to report the problem either to your veterinarian, or to Dr. Clark, or to the assistant state veterinarian, or to myself, so we can help you diagnose the problem," said Conger.

Self diagnosis, Conger said, is impossible because symptoms of Avian Influenza, Exotic Newcastle Disease and mycoplasma are all similar.

Another reason to have the suspected flocks checked is that the H7N7 strain — named for one of 17 hemaglutinin and 10 neuraminidase proteins present with the virus — that was present in Scott County is a low pathogenic strain, is one of two that can easily mutate into a high pathogenic strain.

Low-path, as Conger and Clark said, exhibit mild to severe symptoms that include reduction in egg production while the high-path version results in high mortality rates, and birds are prone to depression, diarrhea, coughing, and can show signs of nasal drips, swelling of head and or face, discoloration of combs and or lesions on their legs.

Ways the virus, a "foreign animal disease," according to Conger, can get onto a farm include introduction of a diseased animal into the flock, interaction with migratory waterfowl who are carriers, use of borrowed or contaminated equipment or a contaminated water supply.

Conger provided examples of how drastic an AI outbreak can be including an H5N2 in Lancaster County Pennsylvania that cost $63 million to contain, resulted int 443 infected flocks, and 17 million birds depopulated.

Another, an H7N2 in a five county area in Virginia that had affected 60 flocks within a month, spread to 197 total and saw saw 47 million birds depopulated. The Virginia case, Conger said, took a task force of 766 people to contain.

Closer to home, in 2005 a low-path was found in Washington County that was contained to a single farm and 15,000 birds. However, although there was no spread of the virus.

Nonetheless, countries instituted an embargo of Arkansas poultry. China, in particular, did not lift the ban until May of this year, just one month before the Scott County incident.

China, Japan and Russia have again instituted embargoes of Arkansas poultry. Mississippi and Georgia have also instituted embargoes as well and other states are considering doing so too, Conger said.

Conger said it appears at this point that the virus has again been contained to the single farm, which is located in the Boles community area.

To get those embargoes lifted, all of the flocks within a 6.2 mile radius were identified, and their flocks were tested, including 51 backyard flocks — Clark said poultry raising is currently the one of the fastest growing hobbies.

There were no reports of more influenza. A second round of testing is set for this week and if all tests within the radius are all negative again, a 90-day waiting period begins.

Preventing an AI outbreak requires a bio-security plan but, Clark said, no one plan fits all. However, things to consider re limiting access to a flock, avoiding visits to other flocks, avoiding contact with migratory water-foul, using only sanitized clothing and disinfection of equipment and vehicles.

More specific information is available through county extension agent Bob Harper. The extension service has offices in the courthouses in Booneville and Paris. Clark can also be reached at 479 954-4245.