The Bird Flu Outbreak Has Taken an Ominous Turn
The poultry industry needs new measures to stop its spread
This week, Argentina and Uruguay declared national health emergencies following outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1, the fast-moving virus that destroys poultry flocks and wild birds, and for decades has been feared as a possible spark for a pandemic among people. That makes 10 South American countries that have recently marked their first-ever encounter with the virus, including Peru—where more than 50,000 wild birds died last fall, and more than 600 sea lions in January. Combine the sea lion infections with the revelation that H5N1 flu invaded a mink farm in Spain in October, and health authorities must now confront the possibility that the unpredictable virus may have adapted to threaten other species.
To be clear, this does not yet include people. Although past decades have witnessed bird flu outbreaks that spread to humans, only two cases have been identified in the past 12 months: a Colorado adult last May, and a 9-year-old girl in Ecuador in January. (Neither died.) And there’s no evidence yet that the virus has been able to jump from newly infected mammals to people. But the fact that it was transmitted from bird to mammals, and then spread among them, indicates a disquieting trend.
According to the World Organization for Animal Health, at least 60 countries have recently experienced outbreaks of H5N1, which is named for two proteins found on the virus’s surface. That includes the US, where 43 million laying hens were either killed by avian flu last year or slaughtered to prevent the disease from spreading. Those losses took out almost a third of the national flock of laying hens; according to the US Department of Agriculture, they cut into egg supplies so much that prices at the end of the year were 210 percent higher than at the end of 2021. Overall, the USDA estimates just under 58 million birds—mostly layers, turkeys and backyard poultry—died or were killed in 2022, and another half-million so far this year.
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