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Outbreak of the Bird Flu

Bird flu — a rare but little known killer. In 2004, as explained in an article from the National Library of Medicine, a version of the ‘avian influenza’, having hopped over to humans, had a staggering 66% death rate. Yet, despite this, it is not common knowledge that there is currently an outbreak of the bird flu across the United States.


Illustrated by Amy Zhao


By Emma Lin, Ananya Biswas, Kelly Liu

Edited: Emma Lin

 

According to an article from Food Safety News, the outbreak has affected 22.8 million birds as of April 5, 2022. This has not taken as much a toll as the 2015 outbreak, which caused 50 million turkeys and chickens to be killed and has still strained the food industry. Most birds affected were from commercial flocks, but many were from backyard flocks as well.


Having evolved from birds, the Avian Flu is a naturally occurring virus that cycles rapidly through wild bird populations. A CDC article on the effect of the Avian Flu in birds explains that the effects of avian influenza are relatively mild on wild birds as they have evolved with the virus. This means that types of ducks, pigeons, and other non-domesticated birds may be asymptomatic even if they are infected with the virus. In other words, you should always assume that wild birds have the Avian flu.


On the other hand, in domesticated birds, the avian flu can have much more dramatic effects with more virulent strains sometimes leading to death rates of even 90 or 100%! As an NHS article explains, while bird flu infecting humans is rare, it can have severe impacts in humans as well. The virus, after its infected a human, will have an asymptomatic period (like many viruses) of 3-5 days after which the infected human may suffer from a variety of symptoms including but not limiting to extremely high fever, muscle or body aches, chest pain, vomiting, and bleeding from the mouth or gums. It can also lead to more severe diseases such as pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome.


As of April 23, 2022, the USDA’s website shows that there are no confirmed cases of the bird flu in California. Since there was only one case of human infection, which was not in the US, zero people died. However, it also shows that 31 states have been affected in some way or another. So it’s important to know what are important precautions to take, as well as what not to worry about. According to a weforum article, the risk to humans from this disease is minimal.


The USDA has determined that public health is not threatened by the current variant of this disease and there have been no cases in humans from it in all of North America. So this outbreak isn’t a cause for immediate alarm. Avian flu can’t travel to humans through properly cooked poultry products, which means that there isn’t any need to put poultry and eggs off the table, as long as they are cooked to an internal temperature of 74 degrees Celsius. This is true for general interaction with poultry after it is already packaged and sometimes even cooked.


But what about in an interaction with a bird that is still alive, whether domestic or wild? Another CDC article helpfully explains that with a few precautions, the risk of catching bird flu is still extremely low. For domestic birds, whether they be in zoos, farms, or are simply pets, it is important to avoid touching/coming into contact with surfaces that have their droppings, saliva or other excretory material, and with the birds themselves if they seem sick or have died.


If interaction is necessary, wear protective clothing and goggles, as the avian flu can only reach humans through contact with the eyes, mouth or nose. In interactions with wild birds, it is important to keep in mind that wild birds may be asymptomatic carriers of the virus. Therefore, it is best to avoid contact with wild birds, and simply stay at a safe distance where no significant amount of the virus could reach the eyes, mouth, or nose.


As it stands right now, the avian flu is not dangerous to the health of the average person, but it still has an impact. A Washington Post article explains the effects the flu has, noting that the sheer amount of birds farmers already have had to kill has greatly decreased supply of poultry goods. However, as demand has not decreased, this has caused prices to skyrocket. Eggs already (as of April 16) cost up to 3x more than they did in November, and as this outbreak does not seem to be winding down, they will probably rise further! Unfortunately, this will only increase troubles already caused by inflation, supply chain issues, and rising gas prices.


An expert cited in the article predicts that costs for eggs, chicken, and products that are made with eggs (like most baked foods) will only continue to go up. Farmers, already having trouble with other price increases such as of animal feed, will be forced to increase their prices to the point that markets and restaurants will not be able to absorb this extra cost and will instead pass it on to consumers. This means that even grocery shopping will come with higher bills.


In the previously mentioned weforum article, it was explained that the USDA has considered vaccines for poultry to prevent avian flu, but as the USDA’s primary goal is to shut down outbreaks as soon as possible which would not be likely with less symptomatic infected birds, this is not a path that the USDA has taken so far (they are still considering it).


Another measure being considered to try and prevent future outbreaks of the avian flu is CRISPR, a gene-editing technology. In an Alliance for Science article, author Justin Cremer explains how this would work. He notes that two startups, eggXYT (which has already made chickens whose sex can be easily determined) and UK-based Tropic Biosciences are teaming up on this endeavor.


Their goal: change part of the chicken’s DNA so they have natural resistance to the Avian Flu.




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