“They had hazmat suits,” the farmer said, “and they sprayed the tires of their truck with disinfectant, too.”
“They” are inspectors checking for avian flu. Coming from all over the United States, the teams travel farm to farm, testing poultry for avian flu. The highly contagious disease has killed more than five million birds — mostly turkeys — in Minnesota and more than 25 million — mostly egg-laying chickens — in Iowa. There is no known treatment or vaccine. Once it hits a flock, the H5N2 virus kills quickly, and kills 90 percent of the birds in those flocks.
For more information, see Talking turkey — and chickens and avian flu.
The current pandemic is a public health emergency, albeit one that affects animals rather than humans. At least for now. Other strains of avian flu have infected humans in the past. While H5N2 has not, avian flu viruses mutate. This one appeared at the end of 2014. No one knows when, or in what way, the next version will appear.
In Grandpa’s day, bib overalls protected against the muck and manure of the farmyard. Then came pans of disinfectant outside the barn door. Stepping in these before entering kept some germs away from the animals within. Now it’s hazmat suits and euthanasia for all the poultry on infected farms and sixty-day quarantines of all poultry for miles around.
Euthanasia — that’s the polite word for suffocating hundreds of thousands of turkeys in their barns and leaving them to “compost” on the floor for months. Then the barns will have to be sterilized before a new crop can be brought in. According to MPR, it will take three months for a farmer to start over.
The current explanation for the source of the H5N2 virus is that it comes from migrating wild birds. We don’t have actual evidence linking wild birds with the spread of the virus. On April 30, MPR reported that a single Cooper’s hawk had tested positive for H5N2 — and that’s the only identified wild bird. The report said that DNR has tested “2,749 waterfowl fecal samples and more than 2,200 have tested negative,” with no positives and the rest of the results still pending. We also don’t have actual evidence of wild birds contaminating turkeys and chickens raised in confined spaces.
Industrial farming systems concentrate hundreds of thousands of birds in closed barns for their entire, short lifetimes. Confining large numbers of animals in small spaces allows disease to spread faster. That’s one factor driving the current pandemic.
Weak immune systems could be another factor. It seems reasonable that confinement-raised poultry have weaker immune systems than flocks that spend time outdoors and exposed to the sun and rain and dirt. Perhaps that is why the disease is sweeping through large-scale operations and not through “backyard flocks.” That sounds sensible, but at this point it’s only a hypothesis, and I don’t have evidence to support it.
Counting the cost
“Backyard flocks,” which may number dozens or hundreds or even a few thousand birds, have barely been touched by the H5N2 virus. Only one such flock — 175 birds — has been infected in Minnesota. But even farm flocks not infected by avian flu pay a high price. All flocks within about six miles of an infected farm will be tested and quarantined for sixty days. That means no egg sales, no sales of birds, no movement of birds off the farm. Imagine a “backyard flock” of a hundred hens, with 40 or 50 dozen eggs sold at a farmers market every week. Now, for two months, the hens keep on eating and the farm can’t sell a single egg.
Industrial farms that lose hundreds of thousands of birds and months of production pay a high price. So do smaller farmers who lose market access even though their birds are not infected. The ripple effect reaches all of us, starting with laid-off farm workers and truck drivers and their communities, and moving out to consumers who will pay higher prices for eggs and chicken and turkey meat.
And there’s the cost of protection — of all those public health workers in hazmat suits and pickup trucks, working to identify and quarantine possible sources of infection, of all the laboratories studying the virus and its sources and variations.