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Nearly 40 Million Birds Dead as Avian Flu Ravages Midwest

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The devastating avian influenza sweeping the Midwest has forced the mass slaughter of nearly 40 million diseased chicken, turkey and wild birds in order to contain the outbreaks, according to the latest grisly numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

According to the USDA, since it was first detected in December 2014, there have been several ongoing highly pathogenic avian influenza cases along the Pacific, Central and Mississippi Flyways (or migratory bird paths). The strains in particular, H5N2 and H5N8, have been found in wild birds, as well as backyard and commercial poultry flocks.

This is the worst epidemic of bird flu in the nation's history. Egg-producers in Iowa, the top egg-producing state, have been hit the hardest, with a shocking 40 percent Iowa's egg-laying hens dead or to be euthanized.

In a report from Harvest Public Media (via NPR), while some local incinerators are burning dead birds 24 hours a day, other landfills have been turning away the carcasses for fear of contamination and neighbors' complaints. Listen here:

"I've been in the landfill business probably 26 years, and I've never ever seen this kind of volume," said Randy Oldenkamp, director of the Northwest Iowa Area Solid Waste Agency, in the report. "And I hope I never do again."

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Prices for eggs in the Midwest have climbed at a rate of 5 percent a day for the past week as supplies dwindle, according to the Associated Press. A dozen large eggs reportedly starts at $1.88, which is 58 percent higher than the prior month. Chicken and turkey sales have also been affected.

Agricultural economist said that bird flu could cost nearly $1 billion to Iowa and Minnesota, the two states hit the hardest. Minnesota, the top turkey state, has lost more than 8 million birds.

The USDA told TIME that some of the viruses currently seen in the U.S. outbreaks originated in Asia and spread via migratory fowl.

Research is still being done to see how the virus has spread so rapidly. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told Harvest Public Media that the poultry industry is in uncharted territory. The virus is "doing things we've never seen it do before," so scientists' understanding is very limited, he said.

"Influenza viruses have thought in the past to be transmitted by birds to birds in close contact and that it was only through that kind of transmission that we need to be concerned," Osterholm added. "Now we surely have a very dynamic situation in the Midwest. It's also a situation where we no longer can assume it's just migratory birds."

The USDA also noted that while "the high number of birds slaughtered during this outbreak is hard for farmers involved, but 30 million is still considered a small percentage of the overall U.S. poultry population." According to the agency, in 2014 the U.S. poultry industry produced 8.54 billion broilers, 99.8 billion eggs and 238 million turkeys.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the risk of human transmission is low. For you to stay safe, the CDC has told the general public to avoid contact with wild birds and chickens or turkeys that appear sick or have died.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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