In the midst of the deadliest outbreak of avian flu in seven years, experts explain why industrial egg and chicken farms create the ideal conditions for the EA H5N1 virus to “spread like wildfire.”
It’s avian influenza EA H5N1.
This highly pathogenic virus, news outlets across the U.S. and around the world report, is the deadliest seen in domestic birds in the last seven years in America — and may well be the worst ever documented in wild birds.
Since the start of 2022, avian influenza EA H5N1 has broken out in at least 30 U.S. states and many other countries.
More than 37 million birds have died in the U.S. alone, PBS NewsHour reported earlier this month.
The virus is affecting aquatic birds, such as gulls, terns and shorebirds; wild waterfowl, such as ducks, geese and swans; and raptors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But despite the extensive media coverage of the avian influenza, most people are more aware of rising egg and chicken prices than they are of the latest “bird flu” epidemic.
That’s because egg prices in the U.S. are almost double compared to last year, and chicken and turkey prices are about 20% to 30% higher than a year ago.
Can ‘bird flu’ spread to humans?
In April, a young man in Colorado on a prison pre-release program caught the avian flu virus while culling birds on a commercial bird farm in Montrose County, according to NPR.
During the 2015 bird flu outbreak, the CDC told the public that human cases resulted from direct physical contact with infected birds or contaminated surfaces, being in close proximity to infected birds or visiting live poultry markets.
While noting that eating “properly cooked” poultry products does not spread the disease to humans, the CDC also cautions that “direct or close (e.g., within about 6 feet) contact to infected poultry or virus-contaminated environments without wearing [personal protective equipment] may increase the risk of human infection.”
The good news is it appears that bird flu viruses, in general, don’t easily transmit to humans, according to a 2005 report published in the Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology.
The bad news is this: When the virus does jump from birds to humans, it may be fatal.
“The mortality rate from epidemics in Thailand in 2004 was as high as 66%,” the same research team explained. “This virus is aggressive. It causes a high death rate, proving that humans have a low immunity to the disease.”
Moreover, strains of bird flu have been linked to “severe pneumonia, multi-organ failure, encephalitis, and septic shock,” according to the CDC.
“Continuous emergence of human infection with avian influenza A virus poses a persistent threat to human health,” wrote researchers in the journal Zoonoses Public Health in 2020.
Bird flu is not new
As history reveals, the problem of viruses overwhelming unhealthy birds is not new.
The mother of all influenza, the 1918 Spanish Flu, is believed to have originated from a bird flu virus, according to evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey.
While this remains an open question, Worobey and his team analyzed 80,000 viral gene sequences from a variety of animals, including birds, horses, pigs and bats, and found evidence — which they published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature in 2014 — that influenza viruses evolve and mutate faster in birds than in other animals.
In 1997, a novel strain of bird flu surfaced in Hong Kong and for eight years, much of the world feared a pandemic.
Wild birds make convenient scapegoats
As with other rapidly spreading infections, experts are keen to uncover the origin of the contagion.
Last week, a journalist for PBS, William Brangham, traveled to the U.S. Midwest to report on the outbreak.
Brangham reported that the new pathogenic bird flu virus originated from migratory birds that frequently harbor the virus (though it does not seem to harm them).
Sometimes, however, “a strain can get passed to domestic birds like chickens, ducks, or turkeys and, with the right mutation, can then spread like wildfire,” Brangham said.
As with any contagious virus, in humans or in other animals, there are at least two factors at play: the virulence of the pathogen and the health of the host.
According to Chris Chlebowski, a naturopathic doctor in Ashland, Oregon, and author of the forthcoming book, “The Virus and The Host,” the health of the host is as important, if not more important, than the virulence of the virus.
Indeed, Chlebowski refers to viruses as our “pathogen partners.”
But when bacteria and viruses get out of balance, they can also cause serious health problems to the host.
The problem is not any given virus, per se, it is when that virus gets out of balance.
Industrial poultry farms ‘ideal’ for spreading virus
So the real question every health expert, environmentalist and media outlet in the country needs to be asking is: Why is this avian flu causing such severe illness in so many domestic birds?
“Big agriculture raises birds in deplorable conditions,” said Chicago-based writer Martha Rosenberg, author of “Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks, and Hacks Pimp the Public Health.”
“These conditions contribute to the spread of bird flu and also to mutations,” Rosenberg told The Defender.
Rosenberg has been reporting on issues related to factory farming for more than 15 years. She insists that keeping chickens in the unsanitary and unhealthy conditions found on factory farms — or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as the industry refers to them — creates a perfect environment for a flu virus to turn deadly.
Just one CAFO can hold more than 125,000 broiler chickens or 82,000 laying hens, according to the non-profit Sentient Media.