In Only Five Months, Largest Bird Flu Outbreak in US History

If you’ve been in the business continuity world for a few years, you’ve certainly heard of the need for pandemic planning.  But with several scares and no catastrophes, many may consider this issue nothing more than crying “Wolf!”, or if you pardon the pun, “Chicken Little” talk.

The largest avian flu outbreak in US history is under way in 16 states to date, several countries have banned poultry imports from the US, 24 million chickens and turkeys are already dead or infected and will die or be killed in the next few days.  Workers at the poultry farms are dressed like Ebola hospital workers, but we’ve hardly heard about this outbreak in the press.

An article in Monday’s New York Times quoted Dr. Henry Niman, a biochemist who tracks genetic changes in flus, explaining that because the virus lives in dried feces and feathers that could blow off trucks, the risks to humans could increase drastically if dead birds are removed from the barns prematurely. “I’m worried that this is getting so big that they may cut corners,” he said.

These strains of bird flu (mostly H5N2 with some H5N8) are extremely lethal to birds, but have not been known to infect humans. However, a number of scientists have expressed concern that in the US, these outbreaks on huge poultry farms, with hundreds of thousands of birds, provide a fertile breeding ground for the virus...and with these conditions, a higher likelihood of virus mutations that could make the picture change very quickly.

The bird flu does not spread as easily in hot, summer weather. Some of the most active poultry production states, in the southeastern US, have not been affected. With warm weather coming, the southern states may escape this outbreak for the time being. However, many believe that with cooler fall temperatures, the virus could quickly spread into the southeast US.

With 24 million dead and still counting, it might be worth dusting off your pandemic plan. And go buy your Thanksgiving turkey now before prices jump. The 3.4 million turkeys dead in Minnesota alone represent almost a fourth of their usual production level.

This story was sourced from several excellent articles, and reports from the USDA and the CDC. Links to these sources follow:

 

US Department of Agriculture:
http://www.aphis.usda.gov/wps/portal/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/sa_animal_disease_information

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
http://www.cdc.gov/flu/avianflu/h5/index.htm

New York Times, May 4, 2015
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/05/health/a-flu-epidemic-that-threatens-birds-not-humans.html?_r=0

New York Times, April 28, 2015
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/29/business/us-officials-expect-bird-flu-to-return-in-the-fall.html

Mother Jones, May 1, 2015
http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2015/04/avian-flu-bites-us-poultry-industry

USDA, Questions and Answers: Avian Influenza, April, 2015
https://www.motherjones.com/files/avian-influenza-united-states-qa_copy.pdf