The Looming Threat of Avian Flu, a recent article by Mary Mckenna in the New York Times Magazine, delves into the crippling 2015 outbreak in the Midwest and the possible threat that this virus poses to the United States in the future. Between December 2014 and June 2015, the avian flu zig-zagged its way across the north and mid-west, costing the United States 50 million turkeys and hens, $2.6 billion in sales, almost $400 million in forgone taxes and 15,693 jobs. The economic and animal tolls were tremendous; luckily the virus did not spread to humans.
“The 2015 avian flu emphasizes the vulnerability of farms to outbreaks – leaving the United States open to an economic catastrophe, or possibly even a human one,” McKenna writes. “Diseases in plants and animals could undermine national security as seriously as human epidemics.”
In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security was created to defend the country from a multitude of threats, including the defense of “the agriculture and food system against terrorist attacks, major disasters and other emergencies.” McKenna notes that in practice, “the main effort against avian influenza has been geared toward detecting and controlling an epidemic in people” with little federal money invested in biosecurity for livestock.
Dr. Jarra Jagne, a senior extension associate in the Department of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences at the College of Veterinary Medicine, works on the ground directly with large and small poultry farms and understands that poultry and human health are linked. She is featured in the Spring 2016 “Food and Public Health” edition of ‘Scopes Magazine for her instrumental work in advising and assisting farmers to design biosecurity programs that keep disease agents that affect humans and animals – like the avian flu – out of farms. In the field, Jagne instructs farmers in the fundamentals of good poultry management for good poultry health. This includes teaching best practices of sourcing, housing, nutrition and basic sanitation of poultry, as well as how to best control the clean movement of people, animals and vehicles between pens to protect against the spread of disease.
Jagne, whose previous work with the virus has taken her to more than thirty countries around the world to train veterinarians to better respond to outbreaks, explains that keeping flocks healthy and poultry products safe for consumption is not only an animal and human health issue, but a political and economic issue as well. In an interview, Jagne explains:
“The poultry industry is huge. In 2014, poultry sales in the US totaled an excess of $48 billion. The poultry industry and its allied industries – which include feed, feed additive, pharmaceutical, equipment, and specific pathogen-free chicken companies – contribute more than 1.8 million jobs to the economy that pay $100.2 billion in wages.
The income that is generated by the poultry industry and its allied industries not only benefits the farmers, but also local and international trade. The United States is a huge exporter of poultry – 2014 exports amounted to greater than $6 billion. Even though the outbreak highlighted in the NY Times article was in Iowa, it affected the poultry farms in Georgia as well because trade bans are imposed on countries with avian influenza outbreaks. The initial ban usually covers the whole country, even if the distance separating healthy and sick poultry is in the thousands of miles. You can say the bans are based more on the politics of trade than reality.
While its first victims are poultry, avian flu is more widely known to us as a human health threat. The viruses have the ability to mutate and change into more pathogenic viruses. H5N1 was originally found only in poultry but then jumped to humans in 1997 in Hong Kong. To date, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports 850 confirmed human cases of avian influenza (H5N1) and 449 deaths – a very high fatality rate.
So really, it becomes very political with economic and public health repercussions. If the avian flu affects millions of poultry, then millions of birds, jobs and dollars are lost. The human lives can be lost depending on the virus strain. A virus can have tremendous impact on the health of poultry, of humans, and of the economy.”
Jagne emphasizes that preventing and responding to another outbreak of avian bird flu requires a holistic approach because it impacts so many different variables. While the work she does directly affects the health of poultry, it keeps humans – and the economy – healthy as well.
This article was written by Cecelia Madsen.