Reuters reports that in the first week of March 2017, a southern Tennessee farm growing chickens for Tyson Foods, Inc. had to euthanize 73,500 broilers because those birds had the unfortunate distinction of being the “first confirmed case of highly pathogenic H7 avian influenza (HPAI)” in U.S. commercial poultry farming. As a precaution, at that time 30 additional farms were quarantined within a 6.2 mile radius. According to Business Insider, within days of that first outbreak, another Tennessee chicken farm got infected, but in this case the virus was “the less serious low-pathogenic flu [that] can cause coughing, depression and other symptoms in birds.”
A more recent report from Reuters updated the numbers of birds destroyed in Tennessee to 90,500. Just a few days after the Tennessee outbreaks, the avian flu migrated into three different flocks in Alabama, which is Tennessee’s direct neighbor to the south. One flock was owned by Aviagen, “the world’s leading poultry breeding company.” They culled 15,000 birds plus all suspected eggs. The two additional outbreak locations were much smaller in nature – a backyard group of hens and poultry from a flea market. In all three instances in Alabama, the low-pathogenic avian flu was detected.
While this low-pathogenic form is less deadly to the poultry, farmers are still required to confirm and report it. This is because, as the World Organization for Animal Health explains, the low-pathogenic virus has the potential to mutate into other, stronger viral forms. The highly pathogenic variety, in contrast, is often fatal for poultry. This is the strain of influenza that caused the death of “about 50 million birds, mostly egg-laying hens, in the United States in 2014 and 2015.”
The poultry industry, health officials and consumers may be ruminating about the possibility of another pandemic which could trigger tremendous economic losses for the bird producers, along with higher prices for consumers. Alabama’s economy depends on a robust poultry industry. It is the nation’s third largest poultry producer, and, as reported by Alabama Poultry, accounts for 65 percent of all farming revenue in the state, while generating $15 billion yearly for the economy. The poultry industry in Tennessee, states TN Poultry, fuels the state economy to the tune of $6.55 billion.
It is important to remember that the risk of bird to human transmission of the avian flu found in Tennessee and Alabama is low, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In 15 years of study, there have been fewer than 10 human infections from HPAI viruses. That being said, the agency does encourage you to avoid contact with any bird feces, whether wild or domestic, and to avoid direct contact with poultry that may appear ill or that have died.
As we encounter pathogens in our environment, remember to drink plenty of clean filtered water, get good rest, and eat an abundance of organic fresh fruits and vegetables.
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