We’re in the midst of the largest-ever outbreak in North America.
But it’s not COVID-19. And it’s not monkeypox.
It’s avian influenza EA H5N1.
This highly pathogenic virus, news outlets across the U.S. and around the world report, is the deadliest seen in domestic birds in the last seven years in America — and may well be the worst ever documented in wild birds.
Since the start of 2022, avian influenza EA H5N1 has broken out in at least 30 U.S. states and many other countries.
More than 37 million birds have died in the U.S. alone, PBS NewsHour reported earlier this month.
The virus is affecting aquatic birds, such as gulls, terns and shorebirds; wild waterfowl, such as ducks, geese and swans; and raptors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
There also are reports from Wisconsin, Washington and Alaska that even bald eagles are falling prey.
But despite the extensive media coverage of the avian influenza, most people are more aware of rising egg and chicken prices than they are of the latest “bird flu” epidemic.
That’s because egg prices in the U.S. are almost double compared to last year, and chicken and turkey prices are about 20% to 30% higher than a year ago.
Can ‘bird flu’ spread to humans?
In April, a young man in Colorado on a prison pre-release program caught the avian flu virus while culling birds on a commercial bird farm in Montrose County, according to NPR.
During the 2015 bird flu outbreak, the CDC told the public that human cases resulted from direct physical contact with infected birds or contaminated surfaces, being in close proximity to infected birds or visiting live poultry markets.
While noting that eating “properly cooked” poultry products does not spread the disease to humans, the CDC also cautions that “direct or close (e.g., within about 6 feet) contact to infected poultry or virus-contaminated environments without wearing [personal protective equipment] may increase the risk of human infection.”
The good news is it appears that bird flu viruses, in general, don’t easily transmit to humans, according to a 2005 report published in the Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology.
The bad news is this: When the virus does jump from birds to humans, it may be fatal.
“The mortality rate from epidemics in Thailand in 2004 was as high as 66%,” the same research team explained. “This virus is aggressive. It causes a high death rate, proving that humans have a low immunity to the disease.”
Moreover, strains of bird flu have been linked to “severe pneumonia, multi-organ failure, encephalitis, and septic shock,” according to the CDC.
“Continuous emergence of human infection with avian influenza A virus poses a persistent threat to human health,” wrote researchers in the journal Zoonoses Public Health in 2020.
Bird flu is not new
As history reveals, the problem of viruses overwhelming unhealthy birds is not new.
The mother of all influenza, the 1918 Spanish Flu, is believed to have originated from a bird flu virus, according to evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey.
While this remains an open question, Worobey and his team analyzed 80,000 viral gene sequences from a variety of animals, including birds, horses, pigs and bats, and found evidence — which they published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature in 2014 — that influenza viruses evolve and mutate faster in birds than in other animals.
In 1997, a novel strain of bird flu surfaced in Hong Kong and for eight years, much of the world feared a pandemic.
This virus was a never-before-encountered novel pathogen. By 2004, it had spread to more than 50 countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Wild birds make convenient scapegoats
As with other rapidly spreading infections, experts are keen to uncover the origin of the contagion.
Last week, a journalist for PBS, William Brangham, traveled to the U.S. Midwest to report on the outbreak.
Brangham reported that the new pathogenic bird flu virus originated from migratory birds that frequently harbor the virus (though it does not seem to harm them).
Sometimes, however, “a strain can get passed to domestic birds like chickens, ducks, or turkeys and, with the right mutation, can then spread like wildfire,” Brangham said.
As with any contagious virus, in humans or in other animals, there are at least two factors at play: the virulence of the pathogen and the health of the host.
According to Chris Chlebowski, a naturopathic doctor in Ashland, Oregon, and author of the forthcoming book, “The Virus and The Host,” the health of the host is as important, if not more important, than the virulence of the virus.
Indeed, Chlebowski refers to viruses as our “pathogen partners.”
As scientists are coming to understand in more depth, all animals, including humans, cohabitate with bacteria, viruses and fungi.
These non-human species — even those like E. coli, which we consider “pathogenic” — provide our bodies with a variety of surprising benefits.
But when bacteria and viruses get out of balance, they can also cause serious health problems to the host.
The problem is not any given virus, per se, it is when that virus gets out of balance.
Industrial poultry farms ‘ideal’ for spreading virus
So the real question every health expert, environmentalist and media outlet in the country needs to be asking is: Why is this avian flu causing such severe illness in so many domestic birds?
“Big agriculture raises birds in deplorable conditions,” said Chicago-based writer Martha Rosenberg, author of “Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks, and Hacks Pimp the Public Health.”
“These conditions contribute to the spread of bird flu and also to mutations,” Rosenberg told The Defender.
Rosenberg has been reporting on issues related to factory farming for more than 15 years. She insists that keeping chickens in the unsanitary and unhealthy conditions found on factory farms — or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as the industry refers to them — creates a perfect environment for a flu virus to turn deadly.
Just one CAFO can hold more than 125,000 broiler chickens or 82,000 laying hens, according to the non-profit Sentient Media.
“When respiratory viruses get into these confinement facilities, they have continual opportunity to replicate, mutate, reassort, and recombine into novel strains,” said Gregory Gray, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.
In an article on CAFOs published in 2009 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, Gray said:
“The best surrogates we can find in the human population are prisons, military bases, ships, or schools. But respiratory viruses can run quickly through these [human] populations and then burn out, whereas in CAFOs — which often have continual introductions of [unexposed] animals — there’s a much greater potential for the viruses to spread and become endemic.”
Connor Jackson, CEO of the U.K.-based animal welfare group Open Cages, concurred.
“Bird flu was once a very rare disease among chickens, but today there are outbreaks occurring every year,” Jackson told a local reporter in January.
CAFOs are “ideal for spreading diseases like wildfire,” Jackson added.
Poultry kept in these large-scale operations are often living in their own excrement, so crowded together that they cannot move, and subject to unspeakable abuse.
Chickens often have their beaks cut off to prevent them from harming other birds. The whitewashed way of referring to this cruel practice is “beak trimming.”
When unhealthy birds die, healthy birds remain alive next to their rotting carcasses.
These factory-farmed birds are fed grain-based diets made from grain that is loaded with pesticides and herbicides, in particular glyphosate.
One 2014 study of broiler chickens found glyphosate residue in the heart, intestines, kidney, liver, lungs, muscles and spleen of the birds.
The prophylactic use of antibiotics also negatively affects the health of factory-farmed poultry.
While there has been a strong push to curtail the use of antibiotics in the poultry industry, poultry farmers are still using antibiotics to fatten their birds, help them avoid bacterial infections, and treat them when they are sick.
And consider this: A team of scientists based in London published a 2019 study showing mice infected with influenza were three times more likely to die when treated with antibiotics than infected mice who are not given antibiotics.
Culling: solution or part of the problem?
As a proactive measure to stop the spread of the avian bird flu, millions of birds were killed in Israel, Spain, France (notable for its foie gras), the U.K., the Netherlands, Hungary, Nigeria, India, Japan and other countries.
Scientists call this “preventive culling.”
With one killing method, broiler chickens and floor-reared turkeys are herded into an enclosed area where propylene glycol foam is used to suffocate them.
Michael Blackwell, chief veterinary officer at The Humane Society of the United States, told The Guardian such death by foam is similar to “cuffing a person’s mouth and nose, during which time you are very much aware that your breathing has been precluded.”
CAFO operators also use “ventilation shutdown” to kill their flocks. This technique involves raising the barn temperature to 104 F or higher for at least three hours in order to kill the entire flock.
This method is so extreme that even factory farmers admit it is cruel.
During the last bird flu epidemic in 2015, “Round the clock incinerators and crews in hazmat suits” were required for the bird depopulation, reported Fortune.
In April, a woman at a basketball game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Los Angeles Clippers in Minneapolis glued herself to the floor to protest euthanasia on Timberwolves’ owner Glen Taylor’s Iowa farm, reported the Des Moines Register.
But not only are these killing methods unspeakably heartless, they are also likely ineffective.
Depopulating and “repopulating the global poultry stock” just keeps “reloading the gun” of avian influenza, insists Dr. Michael Greger, in his 2006 book, “Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching.”
What’s the solution?
In order to have healthy birds that don’t easily succumb to disease, we must improve the conditions on poultry farms, according to Stephanie Seneff, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of “Toxic Legacy: How the Weedkiller Glyphosate Is Destroying Our Health and the Environment.”
“Chickens must be allowed to move freely, eat insects and plants, and have access to fresh air and sunlight,” Seneff told The Defender.
Some activists, who believe it’s impossible to raise animals humanely, embrace a vegan lifestyle. But for those of us who eat animal products, Seneff said it’s imperative to “buy only organic free-range antibiotic-free eggs and broiler chickens.”
“Raising your own backyard chickens is another way to ensure that the eggs you’re eating are healthy and cruelty-free,” Seneff said.
The real rise in egg and poultry prices is not just “high grain and logistics costs, wage inflation, and sustained post-pandemic demand recovery,” as FitchRatings recently reported.
“The wild birds — the ducks and geese — are being unfairly framed,” Rosenberg said.
“They’re not spreading it. In point of fact the wild birds do not die of this. The factory-farmed birds die of it. The real issue is really being underreported. So many news outlets, cable and networks — their advertisers are chicken producers.”