MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WIAT) — Highly pathogenic avian influenza, or “bird flu,” has been found at two farms in Alabama, prompting a swift response from both state and federal agriculture and wildlife officials.

More than 344,000 birds have now been killed in an effort to curb the spread of the deadly and highly contagious virus.

Around 48,000 chickens were killed after the virus was confirmed at a commercial pullet farm in Marshall County, and nearly 300,000 birds, including ducks, pheasants, quail and chukars, were killed after bird flu was confirmed at a commercial farm in Chilton County.

Dr. Tony Frazier, state veterinarian with the Alabama Department of Agriculture, knows those numbers are “staggering” but explained they had a critical reason.

“If we don’t respond pretty quickly, then not only do birds continue to suffer and die, but then, our export markets internationally are impacted,” Frazier said.

With no vaccine, most of the infected birds were already dying. Symptoms include gasping for breath, swelling, gastrointestinal issues and sudden deaths across a flock.

Fraizer said the birds were killed humanely using a combination of carbon dioxide and a foam that puts them to sleep, a method approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

“About the only way to move and move quickly is humane depopulation,” Frazier said.

Highly Pathogenic Avian Flu is not considered a threat to human beings or to food safety. Still, Frazier said infected birds will never enter the food supply.

The impact on the state’s poultry industry has been minimal so far, according to Johnny Adams, CEO of the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association.

“Our farmers have very high biosecurity standards. They change their clothes when they come in and out of houses, they wear rubber boots in each house,” Adams said.

However, Rick Pate, the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Industries, said this virus could easily devastate farmers across the state. Pate suspects these cases originated from migrating waterfowl, such as ducks or geese, because both farms are close to water.

Officials hope by catching the virus early and acting swiftly, they will protect the $15 billion business in Alabama.

“Huge, huge implications for Alabama’s economy … The poultry industry holds up a lot of our rural communities, our rural counties,” Pate said.