Waterfowl meeting mostly in the Russian Arctic infect factory farms worldwide
AMES, Iowa––Just as the COVID-19 pandemic afflicting the world since January 2020 seems to be letting up, the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Veterinary Services Laboratories are warning everyone concerned about birds, wild or domestic, to beware of the first outbreak of High Pathogenic Avian Influenza H5N1 to hit North America since 2016.
H5N1 and related control efforts in 2015 killed 50.5 million laying hens, turkeys, and other birds, 32.7 million of them in Iowa alone.
Outbreak could ease grain shortage?
Ironically, the current H5N1 outbreak could lower food prices worldwide by temporarily reducing purchases of grain to feed farmed poultry, amid grain prices soaring because of the February 24, 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Russia ranks third and Ukraine 30th in the world in wheat production. An anticipated shortage of wheat has stoked extensive speculation in global markets in other grains that may become widely used as wheat substitutes, some of which are used mostly to feed poultry.
United Poultry Concerns challenges culling methods
Anticipating more mass culls, as in 2015, United Poultry Concerns [UPC] has mounted a campaign urging the American Veterinary Medical Association Panel on Depopulation to “adopt a ‘not recommended’ standard of opposition to the practices of smothering chickens, turkeys and ducks to death with firefighting foam,” a UPC media release announced on March 20, 2022.
United Poultry Concerns further urges the AVMA Panel on Depopulation to oppose subjecting poultry, “along with factory-farmed pigs, to ‘ventilation shutdown,’ a method that ‘incorporates components such as heat, humidity, and carbon dioxide, in addition to shutting down the ventilation system, to cause the death of pigs or poultry.’”
(Campaign details are available from https://upc-online.org/avma/220320_urge_the_american_veterinary_medical_association_to_oppose_torturous_depopulation_methods.html.)
U.S. culling methods banned in Europe
Recalled Marina Bolotnikova for The Guardian on March 5, 2022, “In 2020, millions of birds were killed across the U.S. after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down slaughterhouses and left animals stranded on farms. Now, bird flu, which has already led to the slaughter of millions of birds in Europe, is likely to result in another mass depopulation.
“However,” Bolotnikova continued, “two commonly used methods to cull animals on-farm are attracting increasing backlash. The use of firefighting foam to suffocate animals and ventilation shutdown, in which animals are killed with extremely high heat and steam, are still permitted in the U.S., despite being effectively banned in the European Union and labeled ‘inhumane.’
“The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) says the method involves ‘drowning in fluids or suffocation by occlusion of the airways’ and is ‘not accepted as a humane method for killing animals,’” Bolotnikova reported.
Culling by live maceration in machines similar to woodchippers and quarantining infected premises remain the usual response to H5N1 outbreaks in Europe.
H5N1 attacks French foie gras farms
The French Agriculture Ministry on March 11, 2022 reported that 662 outbreaks of H5N1 were discovered on French farms between November 2021 and February 2022, in response to which 4.2 million birds were culled, of more than five million birds culled throughout Europe.
Recalled the Xinhua news service, “France also saw an outbreak between autumn 2020 and spring 2021, during which 492 clusters were detected in poultry farms. The government ordered the cull of some 3.5 million birds, mostly ducks.”
The current outbreak, Xinhua noted, “is the fourth major flu epidemic for French poultry farms since 2015, mainly in the country’s southwest, home to the lucrative yet controversial foie gras liver pate.”
By comparison, the United Kingdom, where foie gras production is banned, reported only 89 outbreaks of H5N1 from October 15, 2021 to March 16, 2022.
The Netherlands, however, reported culling 84,000 chickens in response to just two outbreaks occurring on February 28 and March 1, 2022.
Influenzas spread where birds converge
The H5N1 avian flu, for which there is no cure, tends to kill birds within 48 hours of their showing symptoms of infection, though migratory birds may incubate the disease, and even transport it across thousands of miles, before showing symptoms.
H5N1, like all other influenzas, incubates in migratory waterfowl, who summer in proximity to each other within the Arctic Circle, especially on the Russian side since much of the Canadian side is open water, then disperse globally to winter at lower latitudes.
Because the largest concentrations of migratory waterfowl winter in Southeast Asia, also the region where about two-thirds of the global pig population are raised, that is where influenzas most often spread to other bird species, other mammals, and humans.
H5N1 can infect humans without an intermediary host
H5N1 can infect humans, and is the only known flu strain that can cross directly from birds to humans, without an intermediary host such as pigs.
However, cases in humans are normally rare, with just 374 human fatalities on record.
The first known human case of HPAI H5N1 killed a three-year-old boy in Hong Kong on May 21, 1997,
The most serious outbreak among humans was spread primarily by cockfighters in several Southeast Asia nations beginning in 2003, killing 79 humans in 2006 and resulting in the culling deaths of more than 100 million birds.
Vaccines to prevent H5N1 outbreaks have been used successfully in southern China since 2002, according to virology department chief Ian Brown of the Animal & Plant Health Agency in Weybridge, United Kingdom.
Vaccination against H5N1 is also standard in Vietnam.
Vaccination against H5N1 has not caught on in the U.S., Europe, and Canada, however, because of a prevailing belief that it is not cost-effective, since H5N1 cannot be vaccinated out of existence so long as an ever-evolving reservoir of the disease persists among wild birds.
Cockfighters, pigeon racers, & poultry hobbyists
The usual avenue of H5N1 spread is from migratory waterfowl, to other wild birds, to outdoor and semi-outdoor domestic birds, especially those kept and often transported by cockfighters, pigeon racers, and poultry hobbyists.
H5N1 then infects commercial poultry barns via droppings on the clothing and footgear of poultry workers.
The first hint that the European outbreak of H5N1 would soon hit North America came when CBC News reported on December 31, 2021 that, “Environment Canada says a highly pathogenic avian influenza first identified on a farm on the Avalon Peninsula [of Newfoundland] has been found in birds around the St. John’s area.”
Widgeon, teal, mallards & pelican
Two weeks later the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department confirmed finding H5N1 in a wild American wigeon shot by a hunter in Colleton County, South Carolina.
H5N1 soon afterward was found in a blue-winged teal shot by a hunter in Palm Beach County, Florida.
By February 7, H5N1 had been reported along the entire east coast of North America.
Typical was the discovery of 20 infected wild mallards in Rockingham County, New Hampshire, reported on February 28, 2022, followed 17 days later by an outbreak in what USDA-APHIS called “a non-commercial backyard flock (non-poultry)” in essentially the same location.
Cases were also discovered in the U.S. Midwest, initially in an American white pelican and other birds across four counties in Missouri.
Hunters also transport avian flu
“We have been monitoring this strain [H5N1] since early January,” Missouri Department of Conservation state wildlife veterinarian Shari Russell told media, warning hunters to “be aware that it is possible to transport avian influenza viruses on boats, waders, or other equipment, especially if it isn’t dry before moving it from one site to another.”
The Missouri outbreak appeared to be moving north along the Missouri River and tributaries, also infecting both wild and domestic birds in Iowa, Indiana, and South Dakota.
“I think it’s not a matter of if it comes to Minnesota; it’s when,” Minnesota Board of Animal Health senior veterinarian Shauna Voss told the Red River Farm Network, reminding farmers that the 2015 outbreak caused the deaths of around 9 million birds on 110 properties.
Predators & scavengers
“Wild birds appear to be playing an important role in the High Pathogenic Avian Influenza [HPAI] epidemic,” observed Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases zoonotic disease moderator Pablo Beldomenico, specifying that among the many HPAI strains, H5N1 appears to be the primary culprit in 2022.
“Most wild birds reported infected have been Anseriformes (swan, ducks, geese), followed by birds of prey and crows, often reported dead or diseased due to HPAI viruses,” Beldomenico said.
“Virus transmission between prey and predators and scavengers has been shown for HPAI virus (H5N1), with reported deaths even in mammals (carnivores).
“However,” Beldomenico added, “the transmission of avian influenza viruses has not been sustained within predator and scavenger populations, suggesting that these represent dead-end hosts.”
Beldomenico noted that H5N1 may potentially jeopardize at least two rare bird species.
“The red-breasted goose (Branta ruficollis) is a brightly colored Eurasian bird classified as vulnerable,” Beldomenico mentioned. “In the boreal summer, it breeds in Arctic Siberia, and in winter most migrate to the northwestern shores of the Black Sea in Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine,” the latter currently a war zone, to further complicate the red-breasted goose’s odds of survival.
“Steller’s sea eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus) is a large diurnal bird of prey,” Beldomenico continued.
Steller’s sea eagle is also “classified as vulnerable, ” Beldomenico said, “as it has a small, regionally declining population as a result of displacement following habitat conversion in its breeding grounds, mortality caused by lead poisoning in inland Japan, reduced breeding rate in the Magadan district [of Russia] caused by climate change, and reduced breeding success, predominantly due to predation of nestlings by brown bears on Sakhalin Island,” also part of Russia.