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A highly infectious strain of avian flu has been found in poultry flocks in dozens of U.S. states.
On Monday, March 28, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Carol Cardona, a professor of avian health at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. She discussed topics including: what is known about this strain of influenza virus and the threats it poses to birds, farmers, and others involved with poultry; what has been learned since the 2015 U.S. avian influenza outbreak that resulted in the culling of more than 50 million chickens and turkeys, and a jump in poultry and egg prices for consumers; how this outbreak could impact the U.S. food supply; whether people with backyard flocks and/or pet birds should take special precautions; and whether this virus can infect humans.
CAROL CARDONA: My name is Carol Cardona. I’m the Pomeroy chair in avian health. I’m a professor here at the University of Minnesota. And I work with poultry producers and the public here in Minnesota to help them control disease outbreaks of things like avian influenza.
Interview with SciLine
What is known about the current outbreak of avian flu and the threats it poses to birds, farmers, and others involved with poultry?
CAROL CARDONA: Avian influenza, you know, has been known for a very long time. We first experienced outbreaks of this back in the 1800s here in the U.S. But we know a lot more about this. And we know a lot about this particular virus.
So this particular virus came to us from the Eurasian continent that has experienced annual outbreaks with this virus. In 2015, we experienced a devastating outbreak here in Minnesota and Iowa, with a virus whose last name was 126.96.36.199. That’s a long, numerical last name. But this particular virus that we’re dealing with is the son or daughter of that virus because it’s 188.8.131.52b. So it’s very similar in terms of the types of infections it causes. It appears to be being spread by several species of wild birds. It affects and infects wild birds. Of course, we have, you know, lots and lots of different species of wild birds. And so we can’t say what it does in all of them. But many of them are infected but don’t show signs and—while others, it’s a deadly virus for them.
What was learned from the 2015 avian influenza outbreak—that led to culling more than 50 million chickens and turkeys and a jump in poultry and egg prices for consumers—and what has changed since then?
CAROL CARDONA: We learned in 2015—at that time, we had told farmers that they needed to protect their farms by protecting all of the barns together. So in other words, you know, a big line around the outside that would keep people from driving in, because we knew that the most dangerous thing was for them to get that infection from another farm. What we learned in 2015 is it could be brought right to the barn entrance by wild birds. And so we suddenly had to change the way that farmers protected their birds by changing clothes, changing boots when they come over into contact with their birds so that they’re not bringing virus that’s right outside the barn door.
How might the current outbreak affect the U.S. food supply?
CAROL CARDONA: You know, I’m not an expert in that, per se. But I think that the U.S. food supply won’t be affected is my optimistic viewpoint. I think that our producers are a lot better situated to prevent the types of infections that we saw. We simply got overwhelmed in 2015. I don’t see that happening even though this current outbreak is much more widespread. I think you can see some successful states already. The wild birds have moved through and appear to, you know—they’re continuing to move northward. And I think we’ve seen several states that have recovered or are in the process of recovering. They’ve had one case or two cases. And now—but we haven’t seen, you know, a hundred cases in those states. And there are a hundred flocks in those states, but we haven’t seen those. So I think that’s a good sign that we know how to do this now.
Should people with backyard flocks take special precautions right now?
CAROL CARDONA: Absolutely. So we’re confident that wild birds are involved in the spread. But, you know, here in Minnesota, there’s, I think, 420-some-odd wild bird species. And in the rest of the country, there’s lots more. Which one exactly is it that could be coming to your yard and threatening your birds? We don’t know. What we do know is that waterfowl are usual suspects. And they appear to be involved now. But what we tell people is the reasons that wild birds come to your yard, where you have your birds, is because there’s feed there, you know? It’s the feed that you have for your chickens, or it’s shelter, or it’s something similar to that.
So we recommend that you protect your chickens by keeping their feed locked up. If they’re going to be outdoors, make sure that you cover their area with netting. That keeps most of the wild birds out. Wild birds and chickens don’t really want to interact with each other. They’re not the same species, obviously. And they’re wary of each other. So as long as you keep them away from the things that they would find attractive about your yard, you’ll be fine. We also are recommending that you don’t trade or take your birds to shows or do other things that would take your birds out of their setting and expose them to other birds that might not have been protected as well as you’ve done with yours. So until, say—here in Minnesota, I think we’re recommending June. But in other states, it may be earlier. But that’s what we’re recommending at this point.
Can this virus infect humans?
CAROL CARDONA: Well, it’s an influenza virus. And you can never say never with influenza. Influenza viruses are tricky sorts. And I think the odds are very, very low. I myself would feel confident in being around this virus, given the right protection.
When is there a higher risk of this virus infecting humans?
CAROL CARDONA: If there’s a lot of virus, you’re really close to it, and you spend a lot of time there, that’s a high-risk scenario. And under those conditions, yeah, there’s a possibility. But what we do is when—by protecting our birds from infection, we think that we keep those opportunities really low for the general public. And the people who are exposed are taught how to protect themselves. So you know, if you ever see people dressed up in those white suits or respirators when they’re talking—when they’re going into poultry farms, you know, related to highly pathogenic avian influenza, that’s why.
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