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article imageBird flu epidemic exposes our weak biosecurity measures

By Karen Graham     May 31, 2015 in Business
The worst outbreak of avian flu in the history of the U.S. has now affected 20 states, and health officials are still assuring people the virus poses no threat to humans. More worrisome is the lack of sufficient preparedness seen in this outbreak.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spent last week talking to farmers, producers, and government officials in Iowa and Wisconsin, and according to NPR's Linda Wertheimer, Vilsack assured people that while the H5 bird flu posed no health threat to consumers, it is devastating to farmers and producers.
The bird flu has hit 20 states as of this week, affecting tens of millions of birds and ravaging over 220 farms in the Midwest. Most of them are large production facilities. The roughly 47 million birds affected include turkeys, chickens, and laying hens. This means 10 percent of egg producing hens and 7 to 8 percent of turkeys are affected.
Impact of the bird flu epidemic on consumers.
Vilsack said the outbreak is primarily about animal health, prices to consumers, and the impact the outbreak has on our exports. As far as prices go, the U.S. market will have a surplus of certain chicken parts due to export bans by a number of countries. The bans have affected about 20 percent of our chicken exports.
As for the price of eggs, and products made with eggs, that's another story. The public will see an increase in the price of a dozen eggs and an increased price in goods made using liquid eggs in the production process.
Are measures to protect farmers and producers working?
Vilsack touched on the importance of biosecurity measures, and according to a story in Digital Journal on March 15, farms and production facilities at that time were "increasing their biosecurity standards and practices. This includes putting on sanitary clothing and showering when entering and leaving the barns."
This effort does raise red flags about the nation's biosecurity measures and our ability to fight more virulent diseases in the future. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, posed that question and added, "In the Midwest, we've always said our biosecurity efforts were sufficient to deal with this, but we've never really been challenged."
One of the concerns on everyone's minds is that although the epidemic seems to be winding gown, fall could bring it back, with waterfowl migrations and cooler temperatures, the disease could strike even more states. An even more frightening scenario is possible. Mutation is a real possibility. And there is a subtype of the virus that possibly has the potential to become a human pandemic.
"There is that possibility it could mutate and be a somewhat different virus when it comes back," said Jim Roth, director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University. "Those things are unknown." The real worry is the virus could hit the East coast of the United States. The states of Georgia and Arkansas have billions of broiler chickens, and North Carolina raises millions of turkeys.
Millions of chickens have been killed in an attempt to halt the progress of the H5N2 virus.
Millions of chickens have been killed in an attempt to halt the progress of the H5N2 virus.
TomoNews US
Piles of dead chickens, raising a stink
Over 45 million birds have been killed as a preventive measure in containing the avian flu virus. Yet the birds, with the exception of about seven million, are sitting in piles in many states, waiting to be disposed of someplace or somehow. And the odor and flies is horrible, making many people sick to their stomachs, or worse.
Landfills in South Dakota, Nebraska and northwest Iowa have refused to take the poultry carcasses for fear of spreading contamination. The problem is so severe that Vilsack tried to step in, urging them to take at least some of the birds. Bill Northey, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, and Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, took up Vilsack's message, pleading with landfill operators to take the carcasses.
Disposal of the dead birds points to just one of the problems facing health officials. States and the federal government really didn't have adequate protocols in place to deal with disposing of so many dead birds. So while the carcasses lie in the sun rotting, neighbors are getting sick because of the smell. It is just by chance that flies have not been bringing any diseases into people's homes.
Reuters reported on Sunday that Indiana is training 300 minimum-security prisoners in how to kill infected chickens. This tells us that many flocks have not been euthanized yet, so that means there will be bigger piles of dead birds to deal with. The bottom line is this: Things are not going that well with this bird flu epidemic, and people need to pay closer attention to what is happening.
More about Bird flu, Epidemic, biosecurity measures, piles of dead poultry, USDA
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