From Wyoming to Maine, an outbreak of highly contagious bird flu has swept through farms and backyards across the United States this year, killing millions of chickens and turkeys.
Iowa has been hit particularly hard, with disasters declared in some counties and the state canceling live bird shows in an order that could affect its famous state fair.
Here’s what we know about bird flu.
What is bird flu?
Better known as bird flu, bird flu is a highly contagious and deadly virus that can attack chickens, turkeys and wild birds, including ducks and geese. It spreads via nasal secretions, saliva and faeces, which experts say makes it difficult to contain.
Symptoms of the virus include a sudden increase in flock mortality, a drop in egg production, and a decrease in feed and water consumption.
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, and Europe.
Should humans fear getting infected?
The risk to humans is very low, said Ron Kean, associate professor and extension specialist in the department of animal and dairy sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
“It’s not impossible for humans to get this virus, but it’s quite rare,” Professor Kean said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they are monitoring people in the United States who have been exposed to infected poultry and other birds. So far, no cases of H5N1 infection have been found among them, the CDC said.
Is it safe to eat poultry and eggs?
Yes, according to the US Department of Agriculture, which has stated that properly prepared and cooked poultry and eggs should pose no risk to consumers.
The risk of infected poultry entering the food chain is “extremely low”, the agency said. According to federal guidelines, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is part of the USDA, is responsible for inspecting all poultry sold in interstate and foreign commerce. Inspectors are required to be present at all times during the slaughter process, according to the service, which noted that inspectors have unrestricted access to these facilities.
Federally regulated egg production facilities must undergo daily inspections once per shift, according to the inspection department. State inspection programs, which inspect poultry products sold only in the state where they were produced, are additionally controlled by the USDA
Due to the compulsory culling of infected herds, experts say the virus is primarily an animal health problem at present.
Still, the USDA recommends cooking poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.
Can I expect to pay more for poultry products?
The price of eggs skyrocketed when an epidemic ravaged the United States in 2014 and 2015. Recently, the average price of high-quality large white eggs has “rise sharply”, according to a national retail report of March 25 published by the USDA. flocks, experts say there could be egg shortages. Prices for white and dark chicken meat also rose, according to the USDA. Experts have also warned that turkey prices could also become more volatile.
How is the virus detected?
Testing for bird flu usually involves swabbing the mouth and tracheal region of chickens and turkeys. The samples are sent to diagnostic laboratories for analysis.
Outbreaks have been detected in more than a dozen states.
As of March 31, the highly pathogenic form of bird flu had been detected in 19 states, a tracking page maintained by the USDA showed.
The combined number of birds in infected flocks – both commercial and backyard type – is more than 17 million, according to the agency. A USDA spokesperson confirmed that these birds should be euthanized to prevent the spread of the virus.
A commercial egg production facility in Buena Vista County, Iowa was the largest infected flock and had more than 5.3 million chickens, the USDA said.
An egg producer in Jefferson County, Wisconsin 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.
How do these epidemics compare to previous ones?
The 2014 and 2015 epidemic in the United States was responsible for $3 billion in losses for the agricultural sector and was considered the most destructive in the country’s history. Nearly 50 million birds have died, either from the virus or because they had to be culled, the majority of them in Iowa or Minnesota.
The footprint of the current outbreak, which stretches from the Midwest and Plains to northern New England, has raised concerns.
“I think we’re definitely seeing more geographic spread than what we saw with 2014-2015,” said Dr. Andrew Bowman, associate professor at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
What to do to stop the spread of the virus?
As early as last year, the USDA warned of the likelihood of an outbreak of bird flu and stressed tougher “biosecurity” measures to protect chicken and turkey flocks.
Biosecurity measures include limiting access to herds and requiring farm workers to practice strict hygiene measures such as wearing boots and disposable coveralls. Experts say sharing farm equipment can help spread the virus. The same applies to agricultural workers in contact with wild birds, including during hunting.
“Whether it limits access to where we source feed and water, even truck routes, how do we try to limit those connections that could spread pathogens between herds are all very important,” the official said. Dr Bowman. “At this point, everyone who produces poultry needs to think about how to improve their biosecurity.”
Is it necessary to kill millions of chickens and turkeys?
According to the USDA, infected birds can experience complete paralysis, swelling around the eyes, and twisting of the head and neck. The virus is so contagious, experts say, that there is no choice but to cull infected herds.
Methods include spraying chickens and turkeys with a foam that causes asphyxiation. In other cases, carbon dioxide is used to kill birds, whose carcasses are often composted or placed in a landfill.
“It’s arguably more humane than letting them die from the virus,” Prof Kean said.