Bird Flu Outbreak Leads to Deaths of 12.6 Million Birds in U.S.

Turkeys like these have contracted the new H5N1 viruses
The new H5N1 viruses have been detected in turkeys like these and chicken. Edwin Remsberg / VWPics / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A bird flu outbreak is forcing farmers to put down millions of turkeys and chickens in eight states. 

The discovery of the disease in an egg-laying farm in Iowa Friday meant that 5.3 million chickens were scheduled for euthanization on that farm alone, AP News reported. This brings the total number of chickens or turkeys that have or will be killed up to almost 12.6 million. 

“Based on available epidemiologic and virologic information about these viruses, CDC believes that the risk to the general public’s health from current H5N1 bird flu viruses is low, however some people may have job-related or recreational exposures to birds that put them at higher risk of infection,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said of the outbreak. 

The current H5N1 bird flu viruses were first identified in Europe in the fall of 2020 before spreading to Africa, the Middle East and Asia. By fall of 2021, they became the most prominent bird flu subtype and have caused poultry outbreaks in several countries, including the U.S. 

The disease is spread from wild birds to poultry through droppings and nasal discharge that contaminate the soil, AP News explained. So far, the viruses have been detected in wild birds in at least 24 states. 

The first Iowa outbreak was detected March 1 at a backyard farm with 42 ducks and geese. Another chicken egg-laying farm with almost 916,000 birds suffered an outbreak March 10. Another turkey farm with about 50,000 birds also experienced an outbreak. 

Another state dealing with the disease is South Dakota, where 85,000 birds at two facilities have been euthanized, South Dakota Public Broadcasting (SDPB) reported. This represents the first bird flu outbreak in the state since 2015. Both of the South Dakota outbreaks occurred at concentrated animal feeding operations, otherwise known as factory farms.  At both farms, the virus was first detected in turkeys, but other birds were also killed.

“I think the response is going well and the industry has done a great job of stepping up and trying to prevent it,” assistant state veterinarian Dr. Mendel Miller told SDPB of the response. “They’re doing everything they can, but you know, there’s just some things that are out of their control, and we just have to deal with it when it happens,” he added.

Crowded conditions on factory farms can encourage the spread of diseases like bird flu, which is one argument against these operations. 

Only one human has become infected with the current H5N1 viruses, the CDC said. This was an individual who raised poultry in the UK. They and their birds both tested positive for the virus in January, but the human did not develop symptoms. 

“So far, current H5N1 bird flu viruses lack changes seen in the past that have been associated with viruses spreading easily among poultry, infecting people more easily, and causing severe illness in people,” the CDC said.

However, experts say the disease does pose a risk to wild birds.

“The current strain appeared in both Canada geese and snow geese and other waterfowl in January in the eastern U.S and Canada,” South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks senior waterfowl biologist Rocco Murano said in a news release reported by SDPB. “Detections have now been found throughout the Atlantic, Central and Mississippi flyways. This particular strain appears to be more severe in that it impacts wild birds, and [is] more transmissible among these wild bird populations.” 

The outbreak does not make it any more dangerous to eat poultry products, AP News noted. Experts always recommended cooking poultry meat and eggs to 165 degrees Fahrenheit to kill viruses and bacteria. 

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