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Bird Flu Outbreaks: When will we learn our lesson?

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Unsustainable agricultural intensification is a major driver of zoonotic disease. Industrial livestock production plays an important part in the emergence, spread and amplification of pathogens.

ERICA CIRINO: Since the new version of H5N1 first turned up, this highly transmissible and lethal strain of avian flu has circulated at high rates among domestic fowl on backyard and commercial farms, resulting in the deaths of a reported 37 million birds on farms in the United States alone. Some died directly from the of infection, while many others were culled as part of the country’s response to the disease outbreak. Bird flu has spread to at least 176 commercial farms and 134 backyard bird farms, housing mainly poultry like chickens and turkeys, across 34 states.

It has hit especially hard in the Midwest and Central United States, regions with intensive commercial poultry operations… The disease has also turned up in wild birds, with fatal consequences never previously observed… As of this month, more than 1,000 wild birds across the country have died after being infected… It’s also spreading fast: While people have been busy navigating the second year of the global Covid-19 pandemic, this worrying bird virus outbreak has spread in more than 60 countries across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas…

As the virus rages and government workers deal with the gruesome task of killing infected birds and disposing of the corpses, experts have stood up with one key question: Why have we allowed this to happen again?… The last time a bird flu epidemic hit this hard in the United States was in 2014-2015… The government responded by killing tens of millions of domestic birds to try to stop the spread, at huge cost to the federal budget and with no clear beneficial results — the same way it’s responding to the present lethal outbreak.

Then and now, bird flu proves that a reaction-oriented approach to serious viruses emerging at the intersection of human and nonhuman health is inadequate for stopping the spread of disease. Many animal-health and infectious disease experts now underscore the need to prevent rather than fight the next animal disease epidemic…

We’re now seeing a repeat of that failed strategy. During the current outbreak, government employees and contractors are again tasked with culling tens of millions of infected domestic birds, mainly poultry like chickens and turkeys. Paying for that plus indemnity to farmers for lost birds has cost the government $400 million in emergency funding since March.

One reason why this response doesn’t work is that wild birds spread bird flu but cannot be contained. Research shows bird flu can live in the natural environment for extended periods, and healthy wild birds can become infected by living in proximity to those who are ill…

Some lethal bird flu cases seem to spring from direct interactions between wild and domestic birds. This can happen in backyards and on poultry farms that have full or partial outdoor access. On farms where birds are kept exclusively indoors, the movement of farmworkers and equipment outdoors and among farms — common practice on some of the biggest poultry operations — can allow lethal bird flu to enter.

While wild birds carry disease, large commercial farms act as super-spreaders and disease incubators. Laying hens are housed with other birds in wire battery cages, each allotted a space with a footprint smaller than the width of a single sheet of letter-sized paper. Birds are stacked side by side and sometimes on top of one another. Meanwhile chickens and turkeys raised to be slaughtered and sold for their meat can live in flocks of 10,000 or more birds, who spend their entire lives indoors…

“As a general principle, once avian influenza outbreaks are present in farms, the disease can spread easily within and between farms when biosecurity measures are not applied properly,” said a spokesperson from World Organisation for Animal Health, an intergovernmental group focused on animal disease control…

It seems disease builds up in the air on large commercial farms, particularly those with poor ventilation and crowded animal conditions — suggesting these farms played a key role in the spread of avian influenza in 2014 and 2015. All of this has taken avian flu to the next level in terms of infectiousness and time between outbreaks.

Lethal bird flu viruses arose alongside modern agriculture and globalization and continue to emerge at an increasingly rapid pace, along with animal-rearing rates and farm size. Globally, from 1959 to 1995, lethal bird flu viruses broke out at a rate of once every 2.6 years. From 1996 to 2008, outbreaks arose at a rate of once every 1.2 years…

“Industrial livestock production plays an important part in the emergence, spread and amplification of pathogens, some of which can be transmitted to people,” said Peter Stevenson, OBE, chief policy advisor at Compassion in World Farming… He pointed out that the United Nations Environment and the International Livestock Research Institute identified “unsustainable agricultural intensification and increasing demand for animal protein as major drivers of zoonotic disease emergence”…

In the wild, the 2014-2015 outbreak mainly killed waterfowl and birds of prey that had eaten waterfowl. This time around a much wider range of species — about 50 — has been affected, including many kinds of ducks and geese… When infected, wild birds typically exhibit neurological abnormalities such as lethargy or seizures before succumbing to disease…

The lesson that’s come out of the past few outbreaks is this: We need to rethink our farms and food systems. “A certain way to reduce risk of zoonosis and emerging infectious diseases globally … is to reduce dependence on intensive animal-based food production systems,” says Stevenson, pointing to findings in a recent report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature…

Experts also point out that it’s vitally important to protect nature so that wild animals stay healthy and aren’t forced to interact with people — a common effect of deforestation and development. Reducing our dependence on industrial farms is not always cheap, but it saves major costs in the long run as farmers create life-sustaining systems that keep animals healthy and best prevent disease…

Experts say shifting our ideas of what we accept as normal in our food system, both nationally and globally, could significantly transform the way we value people, nonhuman animals, and the planet, and in turn could prevent the next pandemic — to which we’re all vulnerable.

But is there hope for achieving that? The experts we spoke with aren’t too sure. “These companies have immense political power, which they use to influence policymakers and to obstruct reforms,” says Stevenson. “They are able to shape the narratives that entrench the status quo.” Until we learn from the lessons of this and other outbreaks, it seems the status quo will continue to involve lethal bird flu and devastating impacts on domestic and wild birds. SOURCE…

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