Should You Actually Worry About That ‘Highly Pathogenic’ Bird Flu in the News?

Should You Actually Worry About That ‘Highly Pathogenic’ Bird Flu in the News?

by Sue Jones
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A “highly pathogenic avian influenza” (HPAI), also called bird flu in simpler terms, has been found in a backyard flock of birds on New York’s Long Island, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Suffolk County site was quarantined, and properties with outbreaks are set to be depopulated in order to mitigate the risk of the virus’s spreading to other flocks. Test samples from the flock were processed at the Cornell University Animal Health Diagnostic Center and confirmed at the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service laboratories in Iowa.

According to the USDA, this case comes after a string of HPAI outbreaks have been reported across the U.S., in both commercial and backyard flocks. Cases include a flock of commercial chickens in Kentucky, commercial turkey farms in Indiana, and a backyard flock of mixed-species birds in Virginia. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPAI infects the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts of birds. The virus can rapidly spread through flocks of poultry, causing high mortality. Signs of the virus in poultry can include a lack of energy, reduced appetite, purple discoloration or swelling of various body parts, diarrhea, nasal discharge, decreased egg production, or sudden death.

Naturally, you may have heard about avian flu outbreaks in the past and now are wondering: Do we have another pandemic like COVID-19 on our hands? Thankfully, that outcome seems unlikely with this bird flu at this stage. According to the CDC, no human cases of this specific subtype of bird flu viruses have been recorded in the U.S., though human bird flu cases have happened with other avian influenza subtypes in the past. In the U.S., as well as in other countries, past outbreaks of bird flu have been linked with illness and death in people. This can happen in rare instances because infected birds shed the virus in their saliva, mucous, and feces, and people may then touch or inhale those viral particles. This can lead to symptoms including conjunctivitis, fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, shortness of breath, and more, according to the CDC. Again, though, these instances are uncommon. 

While the Suffolk County, New York, outbreak was a noncommercial operation, USDA officials have reached out to larger poultry and egg farms in nearby Connecticut to ensure they are implementing safe practices. “Now is the time for all poultry owners in Connecticut to take this risk seriously,” said Connecticut Commissioner of Agriculture Bryan P. Hurlburt in a statement. “Connecticut has a thriving commercial poultry industry and thousands of hobbyists who keep chickens, ducks, and other poultry. It is important that we do all we can to protect our birds.” Whether poultry owners are running a small-scale, backyard operation or a large commercial enterprise, they have been advised to review their biosecurity practices—such as sanitizing equipment and restricting the flow of visitors and equipment from other sites—to best ensure their birds are in good health. Connecticut bird owners can report poultry health concerns to the State Veterinarian by phoning 860-713-2505 or emailing [email protected]. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service can also be reached at 866-536-7593.


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