Nearly 50million birds have been culled in US as one of the worst bird flu outbreaks ever seen continues – and experts fear it could be transmitted to humans.
Official figures from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that 47million fowl have either died from the virus or been culled to prevent transmission this year.
The outbreak has been ongoing since the start of the year, when reports of the flu were found among flocks in Europe. It has been found in 42 states.
The H5N1 strain survived through the summer and is still being found in coupes around the world.
Officials fear the threat may persist until summer 2023.
It has led to shortages of turkey and chickens around the world, exacerbating the inflation crisis facing many Americans.
Some experts also fear that it could eventually mutate enough to make human transmission possible – causing a potentially deadly outbreak.
A total of 47million birds have been culled or died from the bird flu in the US this year, making it one of the worst outbreaks the country has ever faced. Around 50million have also been culled in Europe amid the outbreak
BIRD FLU: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
What is it? Bird flu is the source of all human flus, as far as we know.
It often passes through another animal, such as a pig, in the process of mutating and adapting to infect us.
Wild birds are carriers, especially through migration.
As they cluster together to breed, the virus spreads rapidly and is then carried to other parts of the globe.
New strains tend to appear first in Asia, from where more than 60 species of shore birds, waders and waterfowl, including plovers, godwits and ducks, head off to Alaska to breed and mix with various migratory birds from the Americas. Others go west and infect European species.
What strain is currently spreading? H5N1.
So far the new virus has been detected in more than 22million birds and poultry globally since September 2021 — double the previous record the year before.
Not only is the virus spreading at speed, it is also killing at an unprecedented level, leaving some experts to say this is the deadliest variant so far.
Millions of chickens in the UK have been culled and last November our poultry industry was put into lockdown, heavily affecting the availability of free-range eggs.
Can it infect people? Yes, but just 860 people have been infected with H5N1 globally since 2003 from 18 countries.
The risk to people has been deemed ‘low’.
But people are strongly urged not to touch sick or dead birds because the virus is lethal, killing 53 per cent of people it does manage to infect.
Should I be concerned? Not particularly.
Poultry farmers and people who handle wild birds are most at risk.
Scientists say there is a tiny chance a double infection of avian and seasonal flu could allow the current bird flu strain to adapt to be able to spread between people, but it remains highly unlikely.
In 2015, a record 50.5million birds either died from the virus or were culled amid an outbreak – the largest figure ever.
It is feared that this year’s outbreak could reach similar levels if not controlled.
‘This virus could be present in wild birds for the foreseeable future,’ Rosemary Sifford of the USDA said.
‘This one is certainly different.’
The same subtype, known as the goose/Guangdong lineage, is spreading in Europe.
The continent is already suffering its worst avian flu crisis, with nearly 50 million poultry culled.
Officials are finding the subtype in a broader range of wild birds, such as ducks, than in the past and it seems to live in the birds longer, Sifford said.
An elevated threat for infections may persist until summer 2023 as they migrate, she continued.
The US is monitoring wild birds for avian flu in four migration paths known as flyways, up from two previously, and plans to do the same next year.
The outbreak has infected flocks in 42 states since February, twice as many as in 2015, USDA records show.
Infections slowed over the summer this year but did not stop as they did in 2015.
The tenacity of the virus surprised some producers, who have boosted cleaning and security in barns since the 2015 outbreak.
‘Unfortunately what we’ve done probably hasn’t been enough to protect us from this high load of virus in the wild bird population,’ Sifford said.
This has led to record turkey prices ahead of next month’s Thanksgiving holiday, during a time when many families are already struggling because of inflation.
Retail prices for fresh boneless, skinless turkey breast reached a record $6.70 per pound last month, up 112 per cent from a year earlier and 14 per cent above the previous record from 2015, the American Farm Bureau said.
Some also fear that this strain of the bird flu will eventually be the source of the next bird flu as well.
Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at East Anglia University, said in August that it is not a question ‘if’ bird flu will cause another human outbreak, but ‘when’.
‘Whether that happens in my lifetime or my grandchild’s, I wouldn’t like to guess,’ he told MailOnline.
‘These things are very random events and you can never really predict when they’re going to happen, but the more of it around, the higher the risk.’
In May, an inmate working at a work-release farm in Colorado’s Montrose County tested positive for the virus.