Will the next pandemic start with chickens?

However, no one I asked—not Murphey, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, or Lincoln Premium Poultry—said they were aware of a second problem Lanc had observed: manure being loaded onto trucks in one of the barns owned by Gallus near his home. house, in the control area, another act that should have required permits. (Lanc had informed the county, while Barlean had contacted state and federal authorities.) This caused Lanc to wonder how much might be going on at these farms beyond the notice of the people supposedly in charge. The whole quarantine seemed so sloppy, really: Both Lanc and Barlean told me that no agency ever reached out to report that their homes were near an outbreak of this flu. They saw ducks and geese swimming in puddles of rainwater beside heaps of rendered chicken carcasses; workers threw two hazmat suits into the roadside ditch near Lanc’s house. Lanc said he asked the county sheriff to remove them, but when I visited four months after the outbreak, the suits were still there, dusty and sun-dried.


By the end of April, as the epidemic reached its peak, more than 37 million birds had been culled across the country. In the United States, at least, the death toll was lower than in 2015, perhaps suggesting that, despite the laxity observed by Lanc, farmers have tightened their biosecurity. On the other hand, this year’s virus has found new categories of victims. The 2015 outbreak primarily affected turkey and egg farms, where birds live relatively long and therefore have more time to contract a virus. This year, broilers have also suffered, as have a wide range of species. More than 50 wild bird species have tested positive in North America, twice as many as in 2015. Several mammals too: foxes and seals, as well as bobcats and a baby coyote, among others. For the first time in the United States, we can add humans to the list. A Colorado prisoner, who was euthanizing infected birds as part of a work release program, tested positive in late April. The UK also suffered its first human infection, a 79-year-old man who owned 125 ducks. Fortunately, both patients recovered.

How worried should we be? While the ability of this virus to infect mammals is alarming, you, the reader, are still unlikely to fall for it unless you make some foolish decisions: wading recklessly through piles of goose shit, for example, or eat raw birds. But you can think of the Bible stories that have emerged this year as a reminder that your concern is overdue. Avian influenza does not need to be highly pathogenic to trigger a human pandemic; recent studies suggest that the 1957 and 1968 epidemics appear to have involved mild strains of avian influenza which reassorted with human viruses. Even when the birds are not are dying in large numbers, we have to worry about the flu.

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