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Deadly bird flu sweeps states, straining farmers

Over the past three months, a highly contagious strain of bird flu has spread rapidly across the United States, infecting and killing millions of chickens, turkeys and wild birds.

Experts say the outbreak, which is spread by waterfowl and other migrating birds and doesn't pose a threat to human health, could be the deadliest the United States has ever faced. 

Agriculture officials in many states have halted poultry exhibitions, public sales of birds and other related activities to reduce the virus’s spread. They are encouraging farmers and poultry owners to use biosecurity measures such as restricting visitors on properties and disinfecting equipment and clothing, and urging residents to stop filling bird feeders and bird baths. And some lawmakers are boosting funding to fight the avian influenza.

Despite the precautions, some poultry experts worry more birds will die. Consumers will see higher egg and poultry prices, and farmers and their rural communities will face financial hardship, loss of locally grown food and no community gatherings on the farms.

“It's not just the farmers themselves, but it's their neighbors. It's the feed truck driver. It's the bus driver that picks up the kids [for tours],” said Dr. Beth Thompson, state veterinarian and executive director of the Minnesota Animal Board of Health. “This hasn't been shown to be a human health issue. So, folks can, rest assured, buy turkey, buy chicken, buy eggs, and continue to support those farmers.”

More than 35 million domestic poultry have been affected in 29 states, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. And the bird flu strain has been detected nearly 900 times in wild birds across 34 states, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC reported no human cases of the virus, which remains a low threat to public health in the United States.

At least 24 million birds have been killed so far, according to The Associated Press. By comparison, the last outbreak in 2015 led to more than 50 million chickens and turkeys being killed and to trade restrictions on U.S. poultry exports, a report by the Economic Research Service said. Exports of broiler chickens fell $1.1 billion from 2014 to 2015, a 26% drop, the report said.

Poultry experts say farmers should limit their birds’ exposure to ponds, conduct testing and quarantine birds when necessary. Experts also recommend that producers practice good hygiene and wear disposable clothing, and that residents clean bird feeders to minimize spread.

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“If you have birds in your house, pet birds or any other species, if you have backyard poultry, you want to protect them from exposure,” said Dr. Julia Ponder, a wildlife veterinarian and associate dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota. “The birds and the bird feeders are really about our enjoyment of this as things warm up and not an important resource necessarily for the wild birds.”

Ponder suggested farmers and residents who own birds should pause bird feeding and bird baths because it can increase the transmission of the virus.

Some state officials and lawmakers are taking steps to help reduce the spread.

In several states, including Georgia, Massachusetts, Montana and Nebraska, the departments of agriculture suspended all poultry exhibitions, competitions, shows, sales, swaps and other in-person events.

In April, Minnesota Democratic Gov. Tim Walz signed legislation providing $1 million to the state Department of Agriculture for disease surveillance, equipment and testing supplies to help fight the bird flu. In Rhode Island, the House approved a bill that would give the state Department of Environmental Management authority to set up quarantine areas or control zones and order testing of potentially affected animals. The bill has been referred to a Senate committee.

Pennsylvania state Rep. Mindy Fee, a Republican who represents part of Lancaster County, introduced a bill that would provide $2 million for detection, response and prevention of the disease. The state’s first case of avian influenza was confirmed April 16 on a Lancaster County farm. Since then, the illness has been detected on five more farms in the county. More than 3.8 million chickens have been killed, either from infections or euthanizations to try to stop the virus, local news outlet LancasterOnline reported.

Some farmers implemented additional safety measures before the avian flu strain made its way across their states.

Bird flu has not yet reached the Taste of the Wind Farm in Centennial, Wyoming, where BJ Edwards and her husband, Chris Edwards, raise and sell mostly lamb, pork, chicken and eggs, which they process on their farm or at their local USDA service center in Laramie, about 30 miles away.

But that hasn’t stopped the Edwardses from preparing for a potential outbreak. Although their facility isn’t set up to close birds off completely from the outdoors because their farm allows animals to roam freely, BJ Edwards said all their domestic birds are in quarantine and they’ve decorated all their chicken coops with “sparkly stuff” to try to keep wild birds away.

“We have scarecrows out and we’re experimenting with moving around our decoys. We have all of our birds in places on the property where wild birds don’t frequent,” she said. “We’re so isolated out here. We’re so rural, we don’t think it’s too much of a risk that other domestic birds are going to pass it to our birds. It’s more of the wild cards that we’re concerned about.”

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Before the first case was confirmed in neighboring South Carolina in January, Anthony “AJ” McKenzie, owner of Dan’s Farm Fresh Produce in Whiteville, North Carolina, began to move his chickens from outside to inside and secured the fencing area where the wild turkeys are. McKenzie also limited the visitors to the farm and implemented additional hand washing and boot changing, he said.

“I’m not scared yet. I’m not really in lockdown, but I could see it working its way here,” he said.

McKenzie said this current wave of the bird flu affirmed his decisions to create multiple cash crops to survive.

“Farming is very hard. And you might have a good year with chickens one year, but the next year it might not [be], especially with a food spike right now,” McKenzie said. “You can do jams and butters to try to have multiple streams … so if something does happen to your flock, you still have that one cash crop that won’t fade.”

The bird flu, along with inflation, has raised the price of eggs and chicken.

In March, egg prices increased by 1.9%. This year, poultry prices may increase up to 8.5% while egg prices may increase up to 7%, according to an April report by the USDA Economic Research Service.

As migratory fowl fly out of the country and the summer months approach, the virus should eventually dissipate, said Dr. Don Reynolds, poultry veterinarian and professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A vaccine could be a possible route to prevent future outbreaks, he added. The USDA is currently funding research to investigate a vaccine for the bird flu.

“We have to do some preventive medicine measures such as vaccination,” Reynolds added.

Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

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In March, egg prices increased by 1.9%. This year, poultry prices may increase up to 8.5% while egg prices may increase up to 7%.