In recent weeks, a highly contagious and lethal strain of avian influenza has been sweeping across the eastern half of the United States, killing both wild birds and farmed poultry and raising fears that an unchecked outbreak could be catastrophic for an industry that was devastated by a similar virus seven years earlier.
Virus has been identified in migratory waterfowl from Florida to Maine since it began killing chickens in northeast Canada in early January. It has also infected backyard chickens in Virginia and New York, and sickened thousands of turkeys in Kentucky and Indiana, prompting widespread culling and import bans.
According to federal authorities, the virus, which is classified as highly pathogenic avian influenza, was discovered in a Delaware commercial chicken farm on the Delmarva Peninsula, which has one of the country’s greatest concentrations of poultry farms.
Wild birds returning from winter feeding areas, according to experts, are spreading the virus, most likely by their droppings, which are tainted with the virus. Many people believe that the worst is yet to come, despite the fact that the peak springtime migration is still several weeks away.
Farmers are being encouraged to report ill or dead birds as well as to strengthen their biosecurity precautions, which include limiting contact between wild birds and domestic animals.
According to a representative for the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, “It’s essential to highlight that avian influenza is not regarded to be a concern to public health and it is not considered to be a risk to food safety.”
Despite the minimal risk to humans, scientists are keeping a tight check on the virus, known as the Eurasian H5N1, which is closely linked to an Asian strain that has infected hundreds of people since 2003, the majority of them were poultry workers who had come into contact with sick birds. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while that virus does not transmit readily among people, it is exceedingly lethal, with a mortality rate of 60 percent, according to the virus.
It is not known if the strain that is presently spreading throughout the United States has transferred to humans, but scientists believe the rising number of bird illnesses is concerning because it raises the likelihood that the virus may change in a manner that makes it more infectious to humans.
A public health veterinarian and former state epidemiologist for Kansas, Dr. Gail Hansen highlighted that influenza viruses have traditionally been the cause of pandemics affecting humans, and that this is still the case today. Some medical historians believe that Army recruits in Kansas, who may have contracted the disease from farm animals and then transported it to military camps in Europe, were responsible for the catastrophic influenza epidemic that struck the world in 1918.
According to her, “scientists have long expected that the next pandemic will be a respiratory influenza.” Despite the fact that we were mistaken about Covid, it is infections like this that keep us up at night.
Viruses have been spreading over Asia, the Middle East, and Europe as well. In the last few weeks, 300 cases have been documented in 29 European nations, according to the World Health Organization. Thousands of cranes were killed in Israel as a result of an epidemic at a nature reserve.
Turkey farmers, particularly those in Indiana and Kentucky, are the ones who are most concerned at the moment. Several farms in those states have been forced to close in the last two weeks after regulators identified the infection among birds that spend their whole lives cramped into large sheds. Farmers have been taken aback by the speed with which the virus kills, with animals dying hours after they were first infected.
More than 100,000 birds have been put down in Indiana, and a six-mile perimeter has been established around the implicated farms, a containment region within which exports have been banned and birds have been checked on a daily basis.
According to Andrew deCoriolis, executive director of Farm Forward, a sustainable agricultural advocacy organisation, a lack of genetic variety not only poses a danger to the nation’s food supply, but it also poses a risk to public health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified 22 novel influenza virus strains as “of special concern” to human health, with avian influenza viruses accounting for more than half of them, he said, noting that a 2018 study examining the emergence of 39 highly pathogenic avian viruses discovered that all but two of them had emerged on industrial poultry farms.
In his opinion, the industry’s focus on biosecurity and infection control is distracting from a greater, more difficult problem that demands a fundamental rethinking of meat and egg production in the United States, which he described as follows:
As opposed to the current question of “how factory farms can avoid diseases that originate in the environment,” he argues that “how factory farms can prevent illnesses that originate on factory farms” should be the focus of the inquiry. In the long run, if we keep rearing more and more animals in these circumstances, we should anticipate the exact same result that we are receiving since that is how the system is designed.”