U.S. Poultry Industry Facing New Bird Flu Strain Currently Wreaking Havoc Overseas

Image courtesy of PepOmint

A very familiar threat could be winging its way toward U.S. poultry farms, and it’s got the industry more than a little bit worried: there’s a new strain of avian flu speeding across Europe and Asia, forcing farmers to destroy tens of millions of infected birds.

A strain called H5N6 has wiped out 32 million chickens in South Korea this winter, The Wall Street Journal reports, and has spread quickly to cats in the country that came into contact with infected birds (something we’ve seen happen with another strain in New York City recently as well). It moved into Japan, as well, sickening hundreds of thousands of chickens.

While a chicken in South Korea is not going to fly across the Pacific Ocean and land on a U.S. poultry farm, there are wild migratory birds that could make the journey and do some serious damage.

“Migrating birds don’t adhere to borders,” Andrew Ramey, a wildlife geneticist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage, AK, told the WSJ.

No one wants an outbreak like the one that landed on our shores in 2015, when geese and ducks set off the worst animal disease outbreak in U.S. history. More than 50 million birds in a dozen states were either killed by the flu or destroyed in order to prevent the infection from spreading. Prices for eggs and turkey meat went up — prompting some restaurants to shorten breakfast hours and grocery stores to ask customers to limit how many eggs they bought at one time amid the resulting egg shortage — and Thanksgiving turkey supplies were on the line.

It wasn’t great, to say the least, so in the time since that outbreak, government regulators and poultry companies have stocked up on vaccines and equipment in an effort to prevent what happened then from happening again. It’s not an easy disease to contain, however.

Recently, the World Health Organization advised travelers to avoid farms and and live animal markets in affected countries, as it expects the current outbreak to infect more people than the last one. However, WHO says the risk of human-to-human transmission of these viruses to be low.

To keep an eye on the outbreak, government researchers here are working with hunters to collect DNA from wild birds so they can spot any infections as soon as possible. Thus far, scientists have found two cases recently in mallard ducks in Alaska and Montana.

“The risk to North American wild birds and poultry is significant and we need to be watching out for it,” Hon S. Ip, a USGS microbiologist in Madison, WI, told the WSJ.

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