According to the US National Wildlife Health Center, at least 16 states have reported cases of avian flu since December 2014 (1).
The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) reports that over 39 million birds have either been infected directly or are scheduled to be culled, in the largest outbreak of a high-pathogenicity avian flu virus in the United States in decades (2).
What began with random instances of wild birds turning up with the frightening virus infected backyard and commercial poultry, duck and turkey flocks. The hardest hit state, Iowa, is also the nation’s leading egg producer.
In January 2015, reports began coming from the state of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Iowa, California, Utah and Nebraska of ducks, mallards, falcons and other wild birds dead or dying from avian flu.
The Tri-City Herald reported on January 18, 2015 that the pathogen had crossed over to 2 backyard flocks of chickens, geese and ducks in Port Angeles, Washington. Other backyard flocks were diagnosed with avian influenza in Oregon (3).
Flocks were euthanized in an effort to prevent the virus from spreading, but it was like a wildfire spreading across the west to the mid-west, one of the largest egg producing regions in the country. Farms were culled, chicken carcasses buried and a quarantine put in place and still the virus continues to spread.
Countries Ban US Poultry
Almost immediately a number of countries banned US poultry out of fear of the avian flu. The USDA stepped in and tried to impress on these countries that the internationally recognized trade guidelines should be applied to the situation.
In fact, the USDA issued a December 30, 2014 statement saying that:
During the week of December 14, 2014, USDA confirmed two findings of highly pathogenic avian influenza in wild birds in Washington State and in a small backyard poultry flock in Oregon. We reported these findings to the World Animal Health Organization (OIE) as required.”
The statement went on to implore foreign countries to base any trade restrictions on “sound science” and not fear. As a final plea, the USDA emphasized “that poultry, poultry products and wild birds are safe to eat even if they carry the disease if they are properly handled and cooked to a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.”
The plea went unheeded and as of January 7, 2015, 30 nations had placed restrictions on the importing of US poultry. At that time, there were according to Politico, “…only three small, non-commercial brushes with the bird-killing virus” had occurred (4).
The list of the countries banning US poultry and poultry products can be found on the USDA website (5).
H5N1 Antibody Developed
International Business Times reported that researchers at “St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Stanford University Medical Center, and MacroGenics have developed an antibody which is 100% protective against the deadly bird flu virus in two species of animal models” (6).
The new compound known as “FcDART, for Fc (the type of fusion protein) Dual-Affinity ReTargeting molecule” is reported to provide “complete protection against lethal H5N1 viruses in laboratory models of influenza” with just a single dose.
Does that mean it would work on the current outbreak? That is the big question since the current virus has mutated to H5N2 strain that was reported in Thailand. This is a combination of two avian flu strains and is what some scientists are pointing to the reason the current outbreak is so deadly and spreading so quickly.
In mid-May 2015, Scientific American reported that laboratory tests confirmed, that the strain was “H5N2, a mixed-origin avian flu that had never been seen in the U.S. before this year” (7).
Of the states affected, the birds infect have revealed one of three avian flu strains “H5N2, H5N8 or H5N1.” In 2013, the new strain H7N9 ravaged China with the government restraining several people accusing them of “spreading of rumors” about the extent of the epidemic (8).
How Is Virus Spreading so Quickly?
Until now, scientists have believed that the virus is carried by wild birds, but recent research conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources known as the land of a 1,000 lakes has yet to reveal a positive test of waterfowl for H5N2. One hawk tested positive, but hawks don’t typically eat ducks and geese or dead birds.
Researchers also noted that the “first farm in Minnesota where turkeys tested positive for H5N2” had no waterfowl on the property. Other states have tested positive for waterfowl infected with H5N2 and H5N1. So, did the avian flu infect flocks in Minnesota, one of the hardest hit states?
Another question raised by the journal was how waterfowl could spread the virus to commercial birds that are confined in closed buildings. Researchers have theorized that workers could possibly track the virus into the buildings having stepped in feces from infected waterfowl and other wild birds or even from droppings on a car.
Most scientists don’t believe this answers the wide-spread infection. It could play a role, but the latest theory is that the virus has become air borne.
Based on air samples of poultry barns, researchers found, “bits of genetic material from H5N2 in air particles inside and immediately around the infected facilities. This suggests the virus could be transmitted through the air, at least over short distances.” The scientists were quick to add that such evidence found in the air doesn’t mean it could be viable enough to infect the birds. Further analysis is needed.
Food Companies Bracing for Egg Shortage
According to the NY Times, “Roughly 87 percent of the birds stricken with the disease are laying hens…” (9). The food industry is bracing for shortages and desperately trying to find backup suppliers
As with any food shortage, consumers can expect a rise in the cost of eggs and poultry related products. If the pandemic hits the east coast (a heavy grower of chickens for meat) there may be far more consequences of the outbreak in cost to farmers and consumers.
According to the American Egg Board, “United States shell egg production totaled 7.42 billion during March 2015, up 1 percent from last year.” The five largest egg producing states are responsible for 49% of the eggs used in the US (10).
The flu epidemic is being fought on all fronts but the virus is winning. The avian flu continues to ravage backyard and commercial poultry farms leaving a devastating trail in its wake.
References & Image Credits:
(2) USDA Animal Health
(3) Tri-City Herald
(5) USDA: Requirements by Country
(6) IB Times
(7) Scientific American
(8) TSW: Bird Flu May be Adapting to Infect Mammals
(9) NY Times