Millions of birds affected by a deadly virus, sweeping the nation

Dylan Bago, Staff Writer

As the year draws to an end, bird flu numbers spike across the nation, the largest since the bird flu outbreak of 2015. Over 52 million birds have perished since the beginning of the year due to Avian Influenza, which is also known as H5N1. While the U.S. has faced similar viruses before, the causes for this outbreak are different. In the last major outbreak in 2015, bird flu was spread due to domesticated poultry interaction — this year, however, wild birds have been the root cause of the virus. 

With 47 out of 50 states having been affected by H5N1, the virus is spreading, and spreading fast. Richard Webby, Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals, attributes the large growth to wild birds. 

“It does seem just to be able to grow and transmit better in wild birds.” Webby said in an interview with  NPR. “Wild birds are the perfect mechanism to spread a virus because they fly everywhere.” As a result, the high spread combined with a 60-100% fatality rate within two days of infection has led to the ongoing staggering fatalities.

Although the infection rate is exceedingly high amongst poultry and birds, humans rarely contract bird flu. Bird flu is extremely rare, with less than 1,000 U.S. cases per year, treatable by medical professionals. Although rare, the virus can be fatal. To avoid contracting the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend personal protective equipment (PPE) after contact with infected or dead poultry. Examples of said equipment range from disposable gloves, face masks, boots, and some form of eye protection, like goggles.

Regarding consumption of poultry and eggs, consumers shouldn’t be too concerned. According to the CDC, “It is safe to eat properly handled and cooked poultry in the United States. ” The guidelines note that an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit in eggs and poultry would kill bacteria and viruses, including the ongoing avian flu. 

The current flu is mainly fatal to animals like turkeys and hens. When turkey flocks were infected this year, the price shot up to a staggering $1.99 a pound for frozen turkeys; almost double 2021’s turkey prices. However, the final price was only around $0.95, a 6 percent increase from 2021, due to supermarkets slashing prices. While the price remained mostly unchanged, the flu did lead to undersized turkeys this year. 

“Turkeys being raised now for Thanksgiving may not have the full amount of time to get to 20 pounds,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a press conference. “It’s going to be there, maybe smaller, but it’ll be there.” 

While the flu may be prevalent right now, vaccines are being developed to combat the virus. However, vaccinations amongst birds are harder to do than for humans. Usually, vaccines need to be used twice on birds, with a waiting time in between. However, some birds can have quick feeding seasons, making it hard to vaccinate when they’re laying eggs and during the normal vaccination schedule.

As the bird flu spreads, the U.S. will continue to work on vaccinations. Currently, the CDC has a solid stockpile of vaccines to combat the A(H5N1) and A(H7N9) bird virus strains and is aiming to roll out the vaccines in case of an emergency. The aim is to ultimately contain the flu by the regulation of wild birds and through vaccinations to protect further poultry from infection.