You’ll be forgiven if you haven’t heard much about this whole avian flu thing, what with it being primarily centered in Flyover Country and all.1:
“The bird flu that has swept across the Midwest in recent weeks is taking a sharp toll on rural economies, with University of Minnesota researchers estimating losses in the state at $310 million and counting…[b]ird flu has doomed more than 33 million birds in 15 states, with Iowa and Minnesota the hardest-hit”2
But all of the economic and personal livelihood devastation impacts of this strain of avian flu aside, let’s have some real talk about the Minnesota State Board of Animal Health nixing bird exhibits for the year not only at the Great Minnesota Get-Together, but at all county fairs, “swap meets”3 and petting zoos. One Nolan Hohenstein, a 19 year old 4-H member from out-state Minnesota, has been especially personally devastated by this latest havoc wreaked by the avian flu:
“It’s just kind of devastating that I can’t show poultry my last year in 4-H.”
Glad to see 4-H has taught you to keep things in perspective, Nolan.
Even hippies living in urban areas with backyard flocks of chickens4 are eyeing the local sparrows with suspicion wondering if and when the avian flu will jump from whatever mystery vector to their own feathered dinosaurs.
So a full five months (the virus had already shown up in Washington and California three months prior to its appearance in MN)5 and 33 million dead birds later, it must be clear by now exactly how this batch of avian flu is spreading, right?
Apparently, there remains a whole lot of head-scratching about the means for spread of this avian flu. Here’s what is known:
1. The spread of the virus has had no clear common denominator:
“…reports from a dozen more farms started to pour in from far-flung parts of the state. The farms were not owned by the same companies, were not close to one another and did not have the same employees”
2. The initial theory was that migrating water fowl, aka ducks and geese, are serving as carriers of the virus without themselves being affected by the virus.6 However – more than 3000 fecal samples of wild ducks and geese in Minnesota tested negative for H5N2, and the first Minnesota farm where the virus made an appearance proved to harbor neither ducks nor geese on the premises.7
3. Another theory is that the migrating carriers of the virus did exactly that – left their virus-laden droppings behind in the water and on land, then migrated on to other locations. While H5N2 hasn’t been found in Minnesota waterfowl, seven other states have confirmed cases of geese or ducks infected with H5N2.8
4. A single Cooper’s hawk (a species that neither eats ducks or geese, nor scavenges dead things) in Minnesota has tested positive for H5N2, leaving investigators clueless as to how it would have acquired the virus.9
5. The prevailing theory being explored by both the University of Minnesota and the USDA is that the virus may be spreading through the air. According to Jack Shere, associate deputy administrator for veterinary services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service:
“With the proper environmental conditions—cool weather, wet weather, enough wind and some dust—this virus could move in particles,” he says, particularly with the help of fans that would blow it through the barns. “It doesn’t take a lot of virus to get these birds sick, and we have lots of birds in close proximity in certain complexes and it’s just like a day care center for small children—if one kid gets sick the rest can get sick.”10
There seems to be agreement that no one needs to freak out yet about humans coming down with H5N2; birds’ respiratory systems commonly possess the puzzle pieces that H5N2 needs to plug into, while humans don’t have enough of the right receptors to give H5N2 a foot in the door.11 On the happy side, the changes required for H5N2 to more easily snuggle into humans’ respiratory tracts just wouldn’t occur easily or simply. On the suck side, it turns out there is in fact a potentially perfect virus blending machine among us with both avian flu and human-catchable seasonal flu receptors: pigs.
A very nice man with the CDC sets the stage for Contagion 2: The Contagioning – “If pigs got infected with seasonal influenza virus and avian influenza virus at the same time, the viruses could mix. That’s called reassortment.”12
Well – we can all sleep sound knowing that for the moment, “there have been no reports of the flu or elevated levels of sickness in pigs.” Oh, well ok then – we feel much better.
you know, where you swap chickens, like you do ↩