For the first time since 2015, the state of Wisconsin is experiencing an outbreak of the avian influenza. The disease is highly contagious and deadly to birds. According to the CDC, the specific strain currently spreading in the U.S. is the highly pathogenic avian influenza, or H5N1.
Keith Poulsen, who is the director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, said there have been few cases of avian flu in the U.S. between 2015 and now, but the current one is the first large outbreak in seven years.
There are two main approaches to controlling H5N1, according to Adel Talaat, who is a professor of pathobiological sciences at the University of Wisconsin. Talaat’s research focuses on one of the two main approaches — developing a vaccine.
“We’ve been working on a vaccine that can protect against multiple strains of avian influenza,” Talaat said. “We tested this vaccine in 2018 and showed some promising results. We continue to develop it because there is a difference between proof of concept and actually getting a product to the market. So we are still working on this transition period.”
Talaat said vaccines are incredibly important — not just for the health of the animals getting vaccinated but for humans too.
“I hope that the public understands the importance of vaccines, especially for animals,” Talaat said. “Because, if you can protect animals from getting infected, we can definitely protect humans from getting the disease.”
Humans getting avian flu is a concern, though a relatively small one at the moment, Talaat said. H5N1 does not infect humans, but viruses can change very quickly, and other strains of avian flu have evolved to infect humans as well.
The first control method, and the one currently employed, is depopulating all of the infected birds and disposing their carcasses as safely and quickly as possible, usually through compost, Poulsen said. This method is fairly effective, and Poulsen said they’ve learned a lot from the previous outbreaks about what not to do.
According to the CDC, highly pathogenic avian flu has been detected in over 24 million birds and 26 different states are currently experiencing an outbreak of the virus.
“We saw farm-to-farm spread [in 2015] because we saw shared equipment use and holes in our biosecurity on a farm or on a farm with multiple locations,” Poulsen said. “So that biosecurity has tightened up significantly.”
With a 100% mortality rate, H5N1 is both incredibly contagious and deadly, Poulsen said. The disease can kill some birds within hours of infection, and they will all die in a few days at the most. In addition, the avian flu can spread through the air and from contact with infected surfaces such as contaminated equipment, workers and even chickens themselves.
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“Although it’s important to note that this particular strain does not cause illness in people,” Poulsen said. “In highly pathogenic influenza strains, they can change and then they can cross into the human species. It’s exceedingly rare, but it can happen so that’s why we watch it very, very closely.”
The Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory has been monitoring H5N1 for several years now.
Avian influenza spreads as infected populations of birds migrate to opposite hemispheres for the winter or spring, Poulsen said. Wisconsin is a part of the Atlantic Flyway, which is why this outbreak is hitting it so hard. As the birds migrate, they spread the disease to the more susceptible bird species they come into contact with, Poulsen said. In the case of H5N1, these happen to be poultry, with the biggest groups comprising broiler chickens, chickens that lay eggs, and turkeys.
Talaat said this food supply issue is a problem not only for the U.S. but globally as well.
“We are one of the largest producers of chicken and eggs,” Talaat said. “If we are infected, we can affect the production of poultry, meat and poultry and eggs in the whole world and it can increase the price of eggs and poultry meat.”
Poulsen said there’s an enormous amount of misinformation in circulation about the dangers caused by the highly pathogenic avian flu outbreak, but we really don’t have much to be concerned about at the moment.
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Though there can be a lot of anxiety around disease outbreaks, Poulsen said the U.S. has rigorous guidelines in place to ensure any work done with birds is safe.
“I would challenge people when they see something on social media or just the news media in general, to think about it scientifically and ask questions because … the amount of misinformation does so much damage,” Poulsen said.
Other than possibly paying a little extra for eggs, most people shouldn’t be too concerned. Those who own chickens or run poultry farms will be most impacted and should ensure they are washing their hands often. At the moment, the poultry that is already in the market is perfectly safe due to the strict measures employed for tracking H5N1, Talaat said.
Current methods to prevent H5N1 spread on poultry farms include limiting farm visitors, avoiding contact with domestic fowl, stringent cleanliness procedures, preventing contamination of food and water sources and establishing strict biosecure zones.
The outbreak in 2015 ended around May. Both Talaat and Poulsen predict the 2022 outbreak will follow suit, though it’s hard to be completely sure. Poulsen said the control zones for infected premises will last slightly longer — into June.
Poulsen said there are two factors that will end the outbreak. The first is the migration will slow and Wisconsin will no longer be receiving influxes of infected migratory birds. The second is the weather will begin to warm, and influenza does not survive well in higher temperatures.
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But, there are a lot of unknowns with this kind of a viral event. Will there be another outbreak next year? Poulsen said he doesn’t really know. Why did it happen this year and not last year? We’re not sure. Will the outbreak be over by mid-May? Talaat said he doesn’t know exactly.
“These are not solid deadlines or timelines,” Talaat said. “Birds don’t move just on our dates.”
Despite all of these unknowns, UW is at the forefront of influenza research in Wisconsin. The School of Veterinary Medicine works with state and national organizations in order to respond as effectively as possible to influenza outbreaks.
“Infectious disease research at the School of Veterinary Medicine and just UW-Madison in general, is exceedingly strong,” Poulsen said. “There’s a ton of opportunities on this campus because we are tightly linked to human and animal public health.”