how many chickens killed bird flu

The virus is like a kid in a candy store

“The bird populations are all immunologically naïve to this” influenza virus because they haven’t encountered viruses like it previously, according to Webby.

according to him, infecting bird populations is “like a kid in a candy store racing around right now.”

U. S. Experts had been anticipating an outbreak as they observed the spread of effective H5N1 influenza virus strains throughout Europe and beyond. The virus is here to stay and doesn’t seem to be going away.

A key part of the challenge, Webby says, is that like the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the avian flu virus has spun off several variants of concern. And right now, a specific version of the virus — known as clade 2.3.4.4b — is ruling the roost.

Because of its widespread occurrence, “you can think of that like an omicron variant,” according to Webby

Viruses are notoriously quick to mutate. And since its arrival in North America, the avian influenza virus has continued to change.

According to Webby, “when the virus arrived in the Americas, it began to interact with the viruses that we have in our wild birds here,” absorbing various gene combinations.

Comparing the current U. S. Webby states, “From the outside looking in, they look very similar.” virus to the one in Europe. However, upon closer inspection, the viruses that exist here are very different from those that existed in Europe. “.

Wild bird populations may develop an immunity to the virus, but Webby cautions that it may take months to determine whether this is the case on a significant scale.

Ventilation shutdown has become a go-to for the poultry industry

USDA regulations specify that VSD+ is meant to serve as a stopgap when one of two other depopulation methods aren’t available in time for producers to rapidly cull their farms: firefighting foam, which is sprayed over the birds to suffocate them, or carbon dioxide poisoning (neither of these is painless, especially the former, but both are widely considered less cruel than ventilation shutdown).

However, obtaining these techniques quickly calls for preparation, such as standing agreements with suppliers of CO2 gas, which the meat industry and its regulators don’t seem to be concerned about ensuring is in place. On the other hand, VSD is easier to set up in an emergency because equipment companies rent out heaters that are readily available. Livestock producers who did not prepare for a disaster may claim that they were forced to kill their animals due to heatstroke.

“Failure to prepare is not a justification for using a less humane method,” a source who has worked in the livestock industry for decades and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the professional repercussions of criticizing industry practices told me. Peer countries like Canada and those in the EU, the source pointed out, are doing fine in their bird flu response without resorting to mass ventilation shutdown (which isn’t to say that mass killings of animals by other means are humane because, among other reasons, they very often leave suffering survivors). In some European countries, nitrogen-filled foam, a newer, much less distressing technology that quickly renders birds unconscious and kills them through oxygen deprivation, has been used.

In the US, there have also been reports that livestock producers, especially massive factory farms that house hundreds of thousands or millions of birds on one site, prefer to use VSD+ because it’s logistically easier to deploy than other methods, requiring less staff and less cleanup.

In February, Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture spent $119,000 to buy 14 heaters and related supplies to carry out ventilation shutdown plus during bird flu outbreaks, according to documents obtained in a public records request by AWI and shared exclusively with Vox. Producers seeking to kill their flocks with ventilation shutdown have generally tended to rent heaters on a one-off basis, but Pennsyalvania’s decision to buy a set of heaters suggests an intention to continue using the method. (The state is the country’s fourth-largest producer of eggs and eighth-largest producer of turkey.)

In an email to colleagues last December, Pennsylvania’s former state veterinarian, Kevin Brightbill, discussed the necessity of acquiring heaters for ventilation shutdown. “We know VSD heat played a critical [role] in Pennsylvania in 2022… We are entering a time of heightened risk, and with high [egg farm] density in Lancaster County, PA, need to know such resources are readily available for the region,” Brightbill wrote. (This correspondence was also obtained by AWI. Brightbill stated in an email in February that the state agriculture department needed to provide a “non-VSD based justification for purchase of this equipment” after deciding to purchase the heaters. ”.

That last point is key — ventilation shutdown was never meant to be a default method, so emergency responders aren’t supposed to plan to use it routinely. The USDA’s rules are based on the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA) guidelines for depopulating animals, which classify ventilation shutdown plus as “permitted in constrained circumstances,” meaning it should only be used if less inhumane methods aren’t available. Preferred methods should be used for emergency response planning, the guidelines state, and “less preferred methods should not become synonymous with standard practice.” But that’s exactly what’s happened in the US poultry industry.

Using ventilation shutdown will now come at a marginally lower cost to Pennsylvania because it has heaters in its emergency response arsenal.

Dena Jones, the director of AWI’s farm animal welfare program, sent me an email saying, “This just reinforces our impression that VSD is the ‘go to’ depopulation method and little serious attempt is being made by states to conduct the preparation needed to use preferred methods of killing.” If animal activists didn’t keep up their pressure, it’s possible that this heinous practice would result in the death of even more birds. ”.

Bird flu “is still a very present threat to Pennsylvania’s $7.1 billion poultry industry,” Shannon Powers, press secretary for Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture, told Vox in an email responding to a request for comment on the heater purchase. “Each situation that involves making a decision to euthanize animals is evaluated individually to ensure American Veterinary Medical Association approved methods are chosen … Having equipment readily available in the event of an emergency can reduce response time, eliminating prolonged suffering by animals infected with a highly contagious, generally fatal disease, and preventing further spread of the disease.” (It’s worth noting here that, especially on large factory farms where animals are distributed among several large sheds, many of the birds killed for disease control purposes haven’t been infected with bird flu.)

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The bird flu outbreak in 2022–2023 was the worst the US has ever seen. In less than two years, it has impacted hundreds of poultry factory farms in almost every state in the union, resulting in management costs for the federal government of $757 million and rising, as well as more than $1 billion in lost revenue and other expenses for the poultry industry (experts also worry that the disease could cause an outbreak in humans). Whether or not they actually carried the virus—which spreads quickly and has a high mortality rate for poultry birds—all 72 million chickens, turkeys, and other birds raised for meat and eggs on affected farms have been killed and disposed of in an effort to stop the disease’s spread.

This fall, bird flu is surging again. Since October, it has killed over 13 people by infecting dozens of factory farms, mostly in the Midwest. in less than two and a half months, 7 million chickens and turkeys

I use the word “extermination” deliberately. Although many outlets have written that the birds on farms hit with bird flu are being “euthanized,” the reality of these mass killings is far from the painless end implied by that term.

I wrote extensively last year about the advent of “ventilation shutdown plus” (VSD), a technique used on factory farms to kill large numbers of poultry birds by blocking off the airflow inside barns and using industrial heaters to pump in intense heat, causing the animals to succumb to heatstroke over several hours. It is the equivalent of roasting animals to death and is one of the worst forms of animal cruelty used in the US food system. During the current avian flu outbreak, it has been used to kill tens of millions of poultry birds.

As of this summer, the most recent period for which data is available, more than 49 million birds, or over 80 percent of the depopulated total, were killed in culls that used VSD+ either alone or in combination with other methods, according to an analysis of USDA data by Gwendolen Reyes-Illg, a veterinary adviser to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), an animal advocacy nonprofit. These mass killings, or “depopulations,” in the industry’s jargon, are paid for with public dollars through a USDA program that compensates livestock farmers for their losses.

Because ventilation shutdown is so cruel, it has practically been outlawed in America’s peer nations. Danish bioethicist Peter Sandøe told me last year that he was “shocked” by the method’s widespread use in the US and that depending on it would be against the law in the EU.

Numerous US veterinarians, specialists in animal welfare, and proponents of animal rights have objected to the use of ventilation shutdown. Though the USDA’s own policy states that ventilation shutdown should only be used as a last resort, a growing body of evidence obtained through public records requests shows that the poultry industry, in collaboration with agricultural and veterinary authorities, is quietly normalizing ventilation shutdown and planning its further use.

FAQ

What is the fatality rate of the bird flu?

As of November 2022, 240 cases of human avian influenza A (H5N1) virus have been confirmed from the Western Pacific Region since 2003 with a case fatality rate of 56%.

How many birds have been culled due to bird flu?

A total of 79.7 million domestic birds, mostly egg-laying hens and turkeys being raised for human consumption, have died from HPAI or in eradication efforts since the first confirmed outbreak on Feb. 8, 2022. Since then, the disease has been confirmed in 1,059 flocks in 47 states.

What is the chicken virus in 2024?

On 27 January 2024, the National Health Commission of the Peoples Republic of China notified WHO of one confirmed case of human coinfection with influenza A(H10N5) virus and seasonal influenza A(H3N2) virus. This is the first case of human infection with avian influenza A(H10N5) virus reported globally.

Do chickens survive bird flu?

Avian influenza, or “bird flu,” is a respiratory disease of birds caused by influenza A viruses. Wild birds, such as ducks, gulls, and shorebirds, can carry and spread these viruses but may show no signs of illness. However, avian influenza can kill domestic poultry (such as chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese).