Nearly 50 million birds have been culled in the US as one of the worst bird flu outbreaks ever seen continues – and experts fear it could be transmitted to humans.
Official figures from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) report that 47 million chickens have either died from the virus or been euthanized to prevent infection this year.
The outbreak has been ongoing since the start of the year, when reports of influenza were found among flocks in Europe. It has been found in 42 states.
The H5N1 strain survived through the summer and is still found in coupes around the world.
Officials fear the threat could continue until the summer of 2023.
This has led to turkey and chicken shortages around the world, exacerbating the inflationary crisis facing many Americans.
Some experts also fear it could eventually mutate enough to make human transmission possible — causing a potentially deadly outbreak.
A total of 47 million birds have been euthanized or died from bird flu in the United States this year, making it one of the worst outbreaks the country has ever faced. Around 50 million have also been euthanized in Europe during the outbreak
What is it? Bird flu is the source of all human flu as far as we know.
It often passes through another animal, such as a pig, mutating and adapting to infect us.
Wild birds are carriers, especially through migration.
When they cluster together to breed, the virus spreads quickly and is then transported to other parts of the globe.
New strains tend to emerge first in Asia, from where more than 60 species of shorebirds, waders, and waterfowl, including eiders, mallards, and ducks, head to Alaska to breed and mix with various migratory birds from the Americas. Others go west and infect European species.
Which strain is currently spreading? H5N1.
So far, the new virus has been detected in more than 22 million birds and poultry globally since September 2021 – double the previous record the year before.
Not only does the virus spread with speed, it also kills at an unprecedented level, leaving some experts to say that this is the deadliest strain yet.
Millions of chickens in the UK have been culled and last November our poultry industry was put on lockdown, greatly affecting the availability of free range eggs.
Can it infect humans? Yes, but only 860 people have been infected with H5N1 globally since 2003 from 18 countries.
The risk to humans has been considered ‘low’.
But people are strongly urged not to touch sick or dead birds because the virus is deadly, killing 53 percent of the people it manages to infect.
Should I be worried? Not particularly.
Poultry farmers and people who handle wild birds are most at risk.
Scientists say there is a small chance that a dual infection of bird flu and seasonal flu could allow the current bird flu strain to adapt to be able to spread between humans, but that remains highly unlikely.
In 2015, a record 50.5 million birds either died from the virus or were put down during an outbreak – the largest number ever.
It is feared that this year’s outbreak could reach similar levels if left unchecked.
“This virus may be present in wild birds for the foreseeable future,” said Rosemary Sifford of the USDA.
“This one is definitely different.”
The same subtype, known as the goose/Guangdong genus, is spreading in Europe.
The continent is already suffering its worst bird flu crisis, with nearly 50 million poultry culled.
Officials are finding the subtype in a wider variety of wild birds, such as ducks, than previously, and it appears to be living in the birds longer, Sifford said.
An elevated threat for infections could continue until the summer of 2023 as they migrate, she continued.
The United States monitors wild birds for bird flu on four migration routes known as flyways, up from two previously, and plans to do the same next year.
The outbreak has infected flocks in 42 states since February, twice as many as in 2015, USDA records show.
Infections slowed during the summer this year, but did not stop as they did in 2015.
The persistence of the virus surprised some producers, who have increased barn cleaning and security since the 2015 outbreak.
“Unfortunately, what we’ve been doing probably hasn’t been enough to protect us from this high load of virus in the wild bird population,” Sifford said.
This has led to record turkey prices ahead of next month’s Thanksgiving holiday, at a time when many families are already struggling due to inflation.
Retail prices for fresh boneless, skinless turkey breasts hit a record $6.70 a pound last month, up 112 percent from a year earlier and 14 percent above the previous record set in 2015, the American Farm Bureau said.
Some also fear that this strain of bird flu will eventually be the source of the next bird flu as well.
Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at East Anglia University, said in August that it is not a question of ‘if’ bird flu will cause another human outbreak, but ‘when’.
“Whether it happens in my lifetime or my grandson’s, I’m not going to guess,” he told MailOnline.
“These things are very random events and you can never really predict when they will happen, but the more of it, the higher the risk.”
In May, an inmate who worked on a farm in Montrose County, Colorado, tested positive for the virus.
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