ERYSIPELAS: It’s More Common than you Knew

Erysipelas is a bacterial that is common in nature and is found predominately in soils rich in nitrogen. Turkeys are susceptible regardless of sex or age, although under field conditions it is more common in older birds. Infection results from entrance of the organisms through breaks in the skin, the mucous membranes such as during artificial insemination, by ingestion of contaminated foodstuffs (particularly cannibalism of infected carcasses), and possibly by mechanical transmission via biting insects.

The reason that is it important to address this disease is that there have been several cases that have been diagnosed and treated in the last year. Many producers don’t think of erysipelas as a possible culprit for their issue because it was easier to treat birds before current scripting requirements. In other words, treatment for what was believed to be ORT or an unidentified cause of mortality was successful. Erysipelas has likely been around longer and has been far more common than we have previously thought yet was addressed up by treatment with commonly used antibiotics.

The organism is shed in the feces of infected animals and makes its way into the soil where it can survive for long periods depending on temperature and pH. Poultry, as well as other animals, may be  carriers and shed the organism without showing clinical signs of the disease. Carriers can shed from feces, urine, saliva, and nasal secretions. Transmission into poultry houses via rodents can also occur.

Erysipelas is primarily an acute infection that results in sudden death. In an affected flock, a few birds may be depressed but easily aroused, yet within 24 hours, a few birds will be dead. Just before death, some birds may be very droopy, and present with an unsteady gait. Chronic clinical disease in a flock is not usual but does occur, and birds may have cutaneous lesions and swollen hocks. Turkeys with vegetative endocarditis usually do not show any clinical signs and may die suddenly.

Upon examination of an infected dead bird, the liver and spleen are usually enlarged and friable and may be mottled. There can also be  diffuse lesions such as peritonitis, pericarditis, petechiation of the heart, catarrhal exudate in the GI tract, and degeneration of fat associated with the thigh and heart may be noted. The general effect is multiple organ and system damage and shutdowns. There is rarely e coli or fibrin in the birds, likely because of the rapid onset of mortality.

There are two other reasons to cover Erysipelas. The first is that there are no specific husbandry recommendations other than sound  management practices (like biosecurity) for the control of Erysipelas in poultry, particularly in endemic areas. After an outbreak, equipment should be thoroughly disinfected, and dead birds removed from the premises.

The second reason to discuss Erysipelas is that E rhusiopathiae can infect people and causes three different syndromes: erysipeloid, a generalized cutaneous form, and a septicemic form with endocarditis. The organism usually enters through cuts in the skin, and those at risk include people who handle infected tissues, such as veterinarians, butchers, and fish handlers. There have been no reports of people  becoming infected through the oral route. Remember to wash your hands after working in the barns, and any breaks in the skin especially during an Erysipelas outbreak should be taken seriously.