Friday, December 02, 2022

A worrying new bird flu is spreading among American birds and may be here to stay

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Waterfowl and the raptors that feed on them, such as this bald eagle and snow swan, have both been killed by the new bird flu virus.

Jeff Golden / Getty Images

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Jeff Golden / Getty Images

Gettyimages 154947930 Custom F0232342427296B947Af7393F60B86B3778C11A2 S1200

Waterfowl and the raptors that feed on them, such as this bald eagle and snow swan, have both been killed by the new bird flu virus.

Jeff Golden / Getty Images

A newly arrived bird flu is spreading through wild bird populations in the United States, and it could mean trouble for poultry farmers who are doing their best to control this flu outbreak in their flocks.

About 24 million poultry birds such as chicken and turkey have already been lost, either because they died from the virus or were killed to stop its spread. But unlike a similar bird flu outbreak seven years ago, it’s unlikely to just burn itself out.

This is because this particular flu virus seems to be able to circulate in wild bird populations, which can transmit the virus to poultry farms. While chickens and turkeys get sick and die quickly from the virus, some waterfowl can survive the virus and carry it over long distances.

Scientists believe that wild migratory birds brought the virus to North America a few months ago. Since then, more than 40 wild bird species have tested positive in more than 30 states. This strain of bird flu virus has turned into everything from crows to pelicans to bald eagles.

“It’s somewhat surprising how widespread it is already in North America,” says Jonathan Runstadler, an influenza researcher at Tufts University. “It’s clearly been able to persist and circulate year after year in parts of Asia, Europe, Africa, and I don’t think we should be surprised if that’s going to happen here.”

As the virus spreads across the country, and potentially settles for the long haul, it will encounter new animal species that may be infected. This pathogen will also have a chance to mix genetically with the flu viruses that are already circulating in the US

“We don’t really know the way the virus evolves, how it changes, what this means for it,” says flu researcher Richard Webby of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

There has been only one known human case

So far, the risk to humans seems low.

But since related bird flu viruses have repeatedly occurred in people in the past, public health experts are watching for any signs of genetic changes that could enable the virus to be transferred to humans.

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“We are concerned about any avian influenza virus that is spreading to domestic poultry or wild birds,” says Todd Davis, a specialist in animal-to-human diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Since humans have no prior immunity to these viruses, if they do infect and spread the virus to other humans, we may have another pandemic virus on our hands.”

This virus does not have the genetic characteristics associated with the previously related bird flu that has infected humans. And the only person to have contracted this particular bird flu virus was an elderly man in the United Kingdom who lived in close proximity to ducklings; While some ducks became ill and died, their owners never showed any symptoms.

Davis says the CDC is monitoring the health of more than 500 people in 25 states who were exposed to infected birds. Although a few dozen people developed flu-like symptoms, all were tested and none were positive for the virus.

Raptors can be especially hard hit

Wildlife experts have known for a long time that this type of highly pathogenic bird flu was spreading in Europe and Asia. And they are concerned about the potential threat these viruses can pose to American birds.

Then, in December of 2021, chickens and other birds became ill and died on a farm on the Canadian island of Newfoundland. Tests showed that this deadly bird flu virus had made it across the Atlantic.

“This was the first time North America got to it, it was a major one for us,” says Brian Richards, emerging disease coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center.

In January, government officials announced their arrival in the US after a pigeon in South Carolina tested positive. The last time a dangerous bird flu hit the country, Richards says, “the number of cases we picked up that particular virus in wild birds was very limited.”

In contrast, this latest bird flu virus is being found everywhere in sick and dying birds.

“This outbreak in wild bird populations is much more widespread than in 2014 and 2015,” says David Stalknecht, an avian influenza researcher at the University of Georgia. “Just too many birds are affected.”

Waterfowl, and birds of prey that eat their carcasses, are bearing the brunt.

For example, in Florida, more than 1,000 low-scoop ducks have succumbed to the virus. In New Hampshire, about 50 Canadian geese died in a single incident. In the Great Plains states, wildlife experts have observed mass death in snow geese.

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“In addition, there are several other species, including black vultures and bald eagles and some other scavenger species, which were probably infected by consuming the carcasses of those waterfowl,” Richards says.

It remains to be seen how much the virus affects American bird species.

“In Israel, when this virus entered an area where about 40,000 common storks had gathered for the winter, “they lost 8,000 of these birds over the course of a few weeks,” says Richards. If you start thinking about losing 20% ​​of a typical population of wild birds, it’s a huge impact.”

Poultry farmers slaughter their flocks

Chickens and turkeys raised by the poultry industry have suffered the most, and farmers are bracing themselves for even more.

The bird flu in 2014 and 2015 killed more than 50 million birds and caused billions of dollars in losses for the industry. After that, the maximum number of cases were reported in the month of April.

“So I feel like I’m holding my breath this month,” says Dennis Hurd, director of research programs for the US Poultry and Egg Association.

Hurd says there are several ways for the virus to pass from wild birds to poultry. Since the last outbreak, the industry has worked to educate farmers on how to protect their herds.

“Wild migratory waterfowl always fly from above and when they hunt, it falls to the ground,” she says, explaining that the virus can then be tracked into birds’ homes on shoes or unintentionally on vehicles. But can be carried from farm to farm.

Hurd says the spread of the virus from farm to farm appears to be decreasing at present compared to the previous major outbreak. Instead, more isolated cases are being reported, perhaps because wild birds are bringing the virus to farms and backyard flocks.

If this virus remains in a population of wild birds – which some scientists think is likely – poultry farmers will have to learn to live with the problem.

Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, says, “I hope that doesn’t happen. I expect this infection to end in the US soon, and the virus will go away again, as it did in 2014.” ” , “But there is no guarantee, as we have seen in Europe now, that this virus has been present for many years in a row.”

Since December, farmers in Europe have had to rear more than 17 million birds. “So it’s very similar to the situation in America,” Fauchier says. “And we’re seeing a mass die-off in wild birds.”

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