If you've ever dreamt of owning your own industrial chicken farm, you may want to hold off just yet. It turns out a deadly avian influenza is sweeping across the Midwest like an infectious prairie fire. Three flu viruses have been identified among American birds: H5N8, H5N2, and a new strain, H5N1. No, this is not the same H5N1 that sparked panic in the past, but the three strains are related to the Asian version, which has killed over 400 people in the last thirteen years. And like many pathogens - smallpox, tuberculosis, and Ebola - there is always the chance it can jump species, but for the time being, the current strains are only affecting our feathered friends.
The viruses are believed to have crossed into North America on the backs of migratory birds. The avian mixing and mingling that takes place each summer up in the Arctic provides the ideal breeding ground for new forms of flu, which are then transported via ducks, geese, and swans heading south for the winter.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has been reassuring the public, deeming the outbreak, "A low human health risk." However, the potential for human outbreak cannot be ignored.
"So far, we don't have worrisome signs" Schuchat says. "But we don't want to be overly reassuring, because with influenza, we always take events quite seriously."
Although humans have yet to be affected, turkeys and chickens haven't been so lucky. Over 20 million have been culled from farms across the Midwest and workers from affected farms are most at risk. In scenes reminiscent of the recent Ebola outbreaks in Liberia, cullers decked out in biohazard suits have blazoned a swath of avian carnage across Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, which have now declared states of emergency, since the flu can wipe out entire flocks in just 48 hours. The culling is accomplished using carbon dioxide foam, which suffocates the birds. The heat produced during decomposition is believed to kill off the flu germs. But to be on the safe side, many of the carcasses are incinerated in portable kilns or buried. Precautions must still be taken to insure incinerated remains aren't carried off on the wind or those interred don't contaminate the water supply.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people should avoid wild birds, since three birds from Washington State have tested positive. As for domestic birds, they advise, "Avoid contact with domestic birds (poultry) that appear ill or have died."
Not only are the birds themselves dangerous, so are their droppings. The CDC warns to stay away from bird feces, be they wet or dry, and avoid any contaminated surfaces. Even the feathers of infected birds pose a hazard, so workers are taking extra precautions. For now, health officials remain on high alert for any sign of the flu showing up in humans.