What to Know About the Bird Flu Outbreak


From Wyoming to Maine, an outbreak of the highly contagious bird flu has swept across farms backyard flocks in the United States this year, prompting millions of chickens turkeys to be culled.

Iowa has been particularly hard hit, with disasters being declared in some counties the state canceling live bird exhibits in an order that may affect its famed state fair.

Here is what we know about the bird flu.

Better known as the bird flu, avian influenza is a highly contagious deadly virus that can prey on chickens, turkeys wild birds, including ducks geese. It spreads via nasal secretions, saliva fecal droppings, which experts say makes it difficult to contain.

Symptoms of the virus include a sudden increase in the mortality of a flock, a drop in egg production diminished consumption of feed water.

The virus, Eurasian H5N1, is closely related to an Asian strain that has infected hundreds of people since 2003, mostly those who had worked with infected poultry. Its prevalence in the United States is not unexpected, with outbreaks previously reported in Asia, the Middle East Europe.

The risk to humans is very low, said Ron Kean, a faculty associate extension specialist in the University of Wisconsin at Madison department of animal dairy sciences.

“It’s not impossible for humans to get this virus, but it’s been pretty rare,” Professor Kean said.

The Centers for Disease Control Prevention said it had been monitoring people in the United States who were exposed to infected poultry other birds. So far, no cases of H5N1 infection have been found among them, the C.D.C. said.

Yes, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has said that properly prepared cooked poultry eggs should not pose a risk to consumers.

The chance of infected poultry entering the food chain is “extremely low,” the agency has said. Under federal guidelines, the Food Safety Inspection Service, part of the U.S.D.A., is responsible for inspecting all poultry sold in interstate foreign commerce. Inspectors are required to be present at all times during the slaughtering process, according to the service, which noted that the inspectors have unfettered access to those facilities.

Egg-production facilities that are subject to federal regulation are required to undergo daily inspections once per shift, according to the inspection service. State inspection programs, which inspect poultry products sold only within the state they were produced, are additionally monitored by the U.S.D.A.

Because of the mandated culling of infected flocks, experts say, the virus is primarily an animal health issue at this time.

Still, the U.S.D.A. recommends cooking poultry to an internal temperature of 165 Fahrenheit to reduce the potential for food-borne illness.

Egg prices soared when an outbreak ravaged the United States in 2014 2015. Recently, the average price of premium large white eggs has been “trending sharply higher,” according to a March 25 national retail report released by the U.S.D.A. If infections course through more flocks, experts said, there could be some shortages of eggs. Prices for white dark chicken meat were also rising, according to the U.S.D.A. Experts also warned that turkey prices could also become more volatile.

Testing for the avian flu typically involves swabbing the mouths tracheal area of chickens turkeys. The samples are sent to diagnostic labs to be analyzed.

As of March 31, the highly pathogenic form of the avian flu had been detected in 19 states, a tracking page maintained by the U.S.D.A. showed.

The combined number of birds in the infected flocks — the commercial backyard type — totaled more than 17 million, according to the agency. A spokesman for the U.S.D.A. confirmed that those birds would be required to be euthanized to prevent the spread of the virus.

An commercial egg production facility in Buena Vista County, Iowa, constituted the largest infected flock was made up of more than 5.3 million chickens, the U.S.D.A. said.

A producer of eggs in Jefferson County, Wis., was next on the list, with more than 2.7 million chickens. A commercial poultry flock in New Castle County, Del., was the third-largest infected flock, with more than 1.1 million chickens.

The outbreak in 2014 2015 in the United States was blamed for $3 billion in losses to the agricultural sector was considered to be the most destructive in the nation’s history. Nearly 50 million birds died, either from the virus or from having to be culled, a majority of them in Iowa or Minnesota.

The footprint of the current outbreak, extending from the Midwest Plains to northern New England, has raised concerns.

“I think we’re certainly seeing more geographic spread than what we saw with 2014-2015,” said Dr. Andrew Bowman, associate professor at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

As early as last year, the U.S.D.A. warned of the likelihood of an outbreak of the avian flu emphasized a hardening of “biosecurity” measures to protect flocks of chickens turkeys.

Biosecurity measures include limiting access to the flocks requiring farm workers to practice strict hygiene measures like wearing disposable boots coveralls. Sharing of farm equipment, experts say, can contribute to spreading the virus. So can farm workers having contact with wild birds, including when hunting.

“Whether that’s limiting access where we source feed water, even truck routes, how do we try to limit those connections that might spread pathogens between flocks are all really important,” Dr. Bowman said. “At this point, every person producing poultry has to be considering how to improve their biosecurity.”

Infected birds can experience complete paralysis, swelling around the eyes twisting of the head neck, according to the U.S.D.A. The virus is so contagious, experts say, that there is little choice but to cull infected flocks.

Methods include spraying chickens turkeys with a foam that causes asphyxiation. In other cases, carbon dioxide is used to kill the birds, whose carcasses are often composted or placed in a landfill.

“It’s arguably more humane than letting them die from the virus,” Professor Kean said.



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