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Jan Lee headshot

The Avian Flu: The Low-Down for the New Year

Words by Jan Lee

Revelations that two strains of avian flu were detected last week in Oregon and Washington has poultry farmers and some nations around the world on edge. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the virus poses little risk to human populations. But what does it mean for the chicken and turkey industry, and how does it affect the average consumer? Here's what is known so far:

Two strains, likely one source

H5N8 (detected in British Columbia, Canada in early December) and H5N2 (found in Oregon and Washington state in late December) are believed to be mutated strains of an avian influenza that emerged in Asia in the late 20th century. The infections are believed to be carried by waterfowl that have migrated between continents over the years.They can have varying impact on domestic and commercial flocks depending on the strain and the affected species, with some H5N2 carriers showing no symptoms in waterfowl. It's often more pathogenic to commercial poultry, however.

Climate change spreads avian flu

Scientists figured out as early as 2009 that climate change would force birds to change their migration patterns. In so doing, said Dr. Marius Gilbert et al, the migrations heightened the chance for avian influenza strains to spread and mutate.

"[It] is thought that the biggest change in AI epidemiology resulting from climate change will be brought about by changes in the distribution, composition and migration behaviour of wild bird populations," the team said.

Brazil, which lies south of the common flyways of migrating waterfowl, has managed to escape H5N1 infections. As a result of this, some analysts suggest that Brazil might gain economically as it strengthens its poultry export markets. It's been taking steps since 2013 to bolster its protections against imported products that may carry the virus, as well.

The impact on the poultry industry

Western Canada lost significantly this month when H5N2 was detected in three of its Fraser Valley poultry farms. By the time the Canadian Inspection Agency had cordoned of the affected area, more than 11 commercial farms had been affected, leading to the destruction of hundreds of thousands of chickens and turkeys right before Christmas.

Fortunately for U.S. farmers, infections have only been found in backyard flocks in Oregon and one duck in Washington state. But the impact is still being felt by the U.S. poultry market, which has all or portions of its commerce banned by at least seven nations.

What does it mean for U.S. consumers?

The USDA states there is little risk to consumers from well-cooked meat, since the heat is believed to kill the pathogens. Cooking guidelines have been the gold-standard for avoiding food-borne illnesses for years and are being stressed here. It is yet to be seen whether U.S. consumers will gain comfort from that reassurance, but judging from the fact that the poultry industry is expecting a slump in sales, the fallout for the industry is still not known.

One thing for sure is that avian influenza isn't going away any time too soon. State agencies in Alaska and Delaware have issued statements to reassure and advise residents of any potential risks. Delaware's Department of Agriculture is cautioning poultry farmers to "be vigilant" and use biosecurity procedures that would limit any unexpected infections.  Alaska has taken steps to reassure hunters that there is minimal chance of the infections reaching Alaska waterfowl -- and its popular waterfowl hunting season, which has just opened.

"While no public health concerns have been associated with either H5N2 or H5N8 avian influenza strains, these cases serve as reminders that wildlife can carry pathogens of many kinds," Alaska Department of Fish and Game has advised.

If there is a silver lining associated with these events, say researchers, it is that while climate change may affect bird migration patterns -- and by extension the global agriculture markets -- it isn't thought to create new strains or virulent outbreaks of H5N1.

"[These] observations support the idea that climate change will have very little effect on HPAI epidemiology," said Gilbert.

That's awfully good to know.

Image credit: Pandiyan V

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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