Fall Brings Renewed Threat of Virulent Bird Flu
October 2, 2022
Written By Adam Buckallew
When migratory geese and other waterfowl fly south this fall from their Canadian breeding grounds, they will bring with them an uncharacteristic specter of dread. There’s a chance that the migration may reignite a wave of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza outbreaks that spread across the North American continent earlier in the year.
A record 99 species of wild birds contracted the highly contagious virus in 2022. As wildfowl finished their seasonal migratory journeys, H5N1 cases largely subsided. But the virus did not completely vanish as it did in the summer of 2015, during the last avian influenza outbreak in North America. Wild birds and poultry flocks in the United States and Canada have continued contracting the viral infection.
“While the immediate (H5N1) concern is dampened, the risk of an outbreak this autumn remains elevated,” said Brian Earnest, lead animal protein economist with CoBank.
Commercial poultry farms in Minnesota and Ohio have already reported late summer bird flu outbreaks. Shauna Voss, a senior veterinarian on the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, said the virus returned “sooner than we anticipated,” but that the state has been preparing for a resurgence.
H5N1 has introduced significant havoc and devastation to the U.S. poultry industry this year. Through the first seven months of 2022, the virus has been confirmed in 430 commercial and backyard poultry flocks across 39 states. The U.S. outbreaks have wiped out nearly 44 million birds in total. Table egg and turkey producers have been hit the hardest with flock losses of 9.5 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively.
As poultry losses have mounted, the price of eggs and turkey—particularly turkey breast—have spiked. Egg prices have tripled, and turkey breast meat is up 60 percent to historic levels this year, according to an analysis from CoBank.
A recent study from the European Food Safety Authority, which described the 2021-22 season as the worst ever epidemic of H5N1, warns the virus may now be endemic in wild birds. In a world where H5N1 presents a consistent, year-round danger, the deadly virus would pose a looming threat to all avian species—wild and farmed.
“Undoubtedly, this won’t be the last highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak the U.S. commercial poultry sector will have to manage,” Earnest said. “As (H5N1) typically occurs during the wild bird migratory season and carries to commercial flocks through dust particles, fecal matter or other foreign objects, stamping out highly pathogenic avian influenza is particularly complicated.”
Biosecurity is paramount to stopping the spread of H5N1 and other viruses and diseases. Flock owners large and small, from commercial operations to backyard flocks, should review and tighten their biosecurity measures to maintain the health of their birds.