An all too familiar, reoccurring scare took hold of Europe once more this month. Bird flu, this time the H5N8-strain, has been detected in both wild birds and poultry from Hungary to the Netherlands. The news feeds are just as familiar; men in white biohazard suits walk in and out of farms. What happens inside is rarely shown, but casually reported in the headlines: dozens, hundreds, thousands, ten-thousands, hundred-thousands, millions of chicken, ducks, turkeys, geese and other birds exploited by humanity for their meat, eggs or down are destroyed by national authorities to protect the economic interests of factory farming and to restore consumer confidence in their ‘products’.
What is bird flu?
Avian influenza, the official name for bird flu, is a type A influenza virus, of which there are many strains that affect a variety of animals, including ducks, chickens, pigs, whales, horses, seals and humans. The type A influenza viruses are subdivided based on two proteins: hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). The arrangement of the 18 different H subtypes and 11 different N subtypes for type A influenza viruses, results in many different strains. All but two H-N subtypes have been found in birds; H17N10 and H18N11 have only been found in bats. Birds are thought to be the source of influenza A viruses in all other animals.
The type A influenza viruses are further separated into two categories based on the viruses’ ability to cause disease in poultry. High Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) viruses can cause widespread, severe disease and death among certain species of wild and domestic birds and can kill up to 100% of infected birds. Low Pathogenic Avian Influenza (LPAI) viruses are milder.
How does it spread?
The bird flu virus H5N8 that is currently plaguing poultry breeders in Europe is most likely spread by migrating birds leaving their breeding grounds in Asia on their way to wintering areas in Europe and North America.
In 2014 and 2015 millions of birds were infected in Japan, North America and Europe with an H5N8-strain that first appeared in South Korea, early 2014. It led to the culling of millions of farm birds in Asia, mainly South Korea.
The current HPAI H5N8 virus spreading through Europe was first detected in wild birds in the Tyva Republic in southern Russia two months ago, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. The FAO said that the affected locations correspond roughly to the autumn migration patterns of water birds, particularly of the Anatidae family that includes ducks, geese and swans. Scientists say this is the fourth documented wave of intercontinental movement of such viruses since 2005.
Direct contact with droppings from infected wild birds or contact with infected birds themselves most likely expanded the disease to poultry. In many western European countries dead wild birds like ducks and swans were found weeks before the disease was detected in poultry. Once domesticated birds are infected, HPAI viruses can be spread through contaminated equipment and clothing that comes into contact with infected bird droppings or infected water supplies.
On September 14, the FAO released a warning about the spread of HPAI H5N8, when it was found in 17 water birds at Ubsu-Nur Lake, Tyva Republic in southern Russia. The World Health Organisation (WHO) said at the time that the precise origin of the Tyva 2016 H5N8 virus remained unknown although available evidence suggested it was derived from earlier H5N8 viruses detected in Eastern China.
On the weekend of November 12 and 13, 30,000 chickens were culled as a precautionary measure at a farm close to the city of Grumby in Schleswig-Holstein, northern Germany, after the virus was detected there.
Some 300,000 eggs from the farm in Grumby were supplied to a hatchery in the Danish town of Baekke, near Kolding. These were later destroyed by the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration (DVFA).
On November 20, authorities in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein announced their intention to kill 8,800 geese on two farms after some were found infected with avian flu.
A day later, on November 21, the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration (DVFA) announced that the first case of bird flu in a Danish poultry farm had been found after the disease was first detected on November 10, in two tufted ducks in Zealand. In response the DVFA had ordered on November 14 that farmers in the country must lock their chickens and other captive birds behind the fence or under the roof to prevent bird flu from spreading.
The DVFA said the first poultry case consists of a duck herd of approximately 30 in northern Zealand with a third already dead. Tests showed that the ducks were infected with the same type of bird flu, H5N8, found in the wild birds.
All birds in the farm including chickens, turkeys and geese have since been destroyed.
On November 22, Iran’s agriculture ministry reported the discovery of two outbreaks of H5N8 bird flu virus at farms located in the Tehran region. On a layer farm 1401 birds died and another 25,472 were destroyed.
On November 24, Hungary confirmed outbreaks on nine more farms in the south of the country, mainly affecting geese and ducks. Over 107,000 birds were destroyed as a result of the outbreaks.
That same day, in Barssel, a village in the municipality of Cloppenburg in northern Germany’s Niedersachsen, 16,000 turkey cocks were destroyed after the H5N8 bird flu virus was found at one operation. Niedersachsen is one of Europe’s largest poultry producing regions.
The virus had by then been detected in 10 German states since it was first registered in the country on November 8.
Local authorities announced that a further 92,000 fowl on two sites nearby would also be destroyed.
On November 26, Swedish authorities reported that 200,000 chickens were to be slaughtered at the Aniagra farm in Morarp in southwestern Sweden where bird flu was confirmed on the Thursday before. The discovery came after bird flu was detected among ducks at a tiny farm in neighbouring Denmark.
On November 23, the Swedish National Veterinary Institute (SVA) had reported that the deadly H5N8 strain of the virus had been detected in a wild bird in the country’s southern Scania province.
Traces of the H5 virus have also been found at a factory farm in Helsingborg, though it is not yet clear whether it is the H5N8 strain. Some 38,000 egg-laying hens have been destroyed as a precaution, the agricultural ministry said.
On November 26, H5N8 bird flu was confirmed in India among birds in Karnataka’s Itagi village and 1,593 birds were culled.
That same day in Biddinghuizen in the Netherlands at a company breeding ducks for meat, the H5 virus was found. All 180,000 animals at that operation and on two other locations of the same company in Hierden and in Ermelo were culled by collecting the ducks in big-bags and then gassing them. All chicken on a nearby farm were also culled as a precaution; no bird flu was found in any of these animals.
Since November 9 all poultry in the Netherlands had to be kept indoors. On November 14 the measures were tightened by limiting access to farms and by banning the hunting of waterfowl.
On november 28, French authorities started culling wild ducks in the North of the country, less than 30km from the port of Calais. in a desperate measure to contain the highly infectious strain of bird flu. An outbreak of bird flu in southeastern France earlier this year decimated poultry flocks and halted much of the country’s torturous foie-grass industry.
That Same day Romania’s veterinary and food safety agency (ANSVSA) confirmed H5N8 bird flu in a dead wild swan found in southeastern Romania earlier in November.
Finland has also reported H5N8 bird flu detected in tufted ducks found dead on the Aland islands in the Baltic Sea .
So by late November, the virus had travelled westward as far as the Netherlands on the North Sea coast and southwards to Kerala Province in India. By then eight countries in Europe (Hungary, Poland, Croatia, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands) and two in the Middle East (Israel, and Iran) were affected. Species included gulls, geese, ducks, chickens, turkeys, swans, and other types of waterfowl.
More outbreaks of this strain of bird flu in Europe are likely to occur in the next few weeks as wild birds migrate southward. It is highly likely the virus will reach the USA in the same way as well.
Roughly two years ago, when the HPAI H5N2 virus arrived in North America, the United States (and to a lesser extent Canada) experienced a widespread epidemic that saw 50 million commercial poultry destroyed; 30 million birds died or were culled in Iowa alone, the nation’s largest egg producer. It was the worst animal-disease epidemic in United States history.
The avian flu arrived in December 2014; it jumped the Canadian border from British Columbia farms, infecting wild birds in Washington State before spreading through poultry farms on the West Coast. On March 4, 2015, it struck Minnesota, the No. 1 turkey producer in the United States; Missouri was next, on March 9; then Arkansas on March 11, Kansas on March 13 and South Dakota on April 1. In April Minnesota was hit again, the virus eventually visiting 23 farms holding 1.5 million turkeys. Iowa was struck on April 13, first a turkey farm and then an operation holding more than 4.1 million egg-laying hens.
By the end of May, over 25 million chickens were dead in Iowa alone. Nebraska had lost by then 7 million of the state’s 9.45 million egg-laying hens.
After H5N2 hit the USA, hundreds of farms were quarantined and thousands of industry workers lost their jobs for weeks or months. The price of eggs doubled and remained high for nearly a year, while farmers restocked their farms.
In the summer of 2015, an analysis prepared for congress calculated the economic costs at that time to be $3.3 billion, $2.6 billion in lost sales and almost $400 million in forgone taxes, and 15,693 jobs.
These are the only losses that count in animal exploitation.
H5N1 emerged in Hong Kong in 1997, has infected 846 people in 16 countries since, and killed more than half of them. During a large outbreak of this strain in 2003 the virus passed on to humans, killing hundreds of them in Asia and Egypt.
Since then bird flu has been associated with human casualties.
H5N1 is not the only strain of avian flu that has killed humans. The H5N6 virus has killed at least 10 people in China since April 2014.
Of the current pandemic the WHO said on November 17: “Human infection with the A(H5N8) virus cannot be excluded, although the likelihood is low”.
While most strains of avian influenza are found to exclusively infect birds, there are some strains such as H5N1, H7N9, and H5N6, which have caused severe illness or death in people.
Influenza A viruses can become virulent to new hosts through a process called antigenic shift. This happens when two influenza A viruses infect a single host and are re-modeled to form a new virus. Pigs, for instance, are susceptible to avian, human and swine flu viruses and might at any time be infected with influenza viruses from different species. The genes of these viruses might mix and create a new virus.
Natural infections of H5N8 have been reported in dogs in South Korea.
A Worldwide Problem:
At the same time as Europe, Asia and probably soon North America are battling H5N8, two new cases of H5N1 were discovered in Nigeria. This strain has been affecting West Africa for some time.
On November 23, South Korea experienced three more outbreaks of the HPAI H5N6 strain after the first cases were confirmed on the 18th.
The new bird flu outbreaks were discovered at two duck farms in the central and southwestern regions of the country and a third case was confirmed later at a chicken farm in the city of Yangju, about 38 kilometers north of Seoul. All 30,500 ducks at the farms have been culled.
By November 25, about 730,000 birds had been killed to prevent the spread of the disease, less than 1% of the country’s poultry population of 84.7 million. That number will rise to at least 3.3% as the ministry plans to slaughter at least 2.78 million birds.
On November 29, authorities in Niigata prefecture north of Tokyo, Japan started culling about 310,000 chickens at a farm in the village of Sekikawa after 40 birds were found dead from H5N6 bird flu. Further north in Aomori, about 16,500 ducks were being culled after some tested positive for bird flu.
The True Cause:
The subtle mentioning, again and again, of the role of migrating birds in the spread of the avian flu viruses, suggests the blame for the pandemic lies with them. The meat and egg industry and the authorities seem happy to keep that myth alive, aided by an un-inquisitive press and barely-interested public, but the science tells something different.
Yes the birds play a role in transporting the viruses, but at least some strains seem to be ‘born’ in domesticated birds:
H7N9 virus likely obtained its H gene from domestic ducks, its N gene from wild birds and its six remaining genes from multiple related H9N2 influenza viruses in domestic poultry. This indicates that the poultry factory farming industry is as much a source as a victim of some of these viruses.
Our hunger for bird meat and the ever-spreading poultry factory farming quenching it, might be killing of the wild birds, not the other way around.
What was clear from the H5N2 spread across the USA in 2015 was that the pattern did not match wild bird migration patterns.
Virologists at the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory, a division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), traced the expansion of the virus through tiny copying errors occurring in genes when a virus reproduces itself. When viruses in different locations are identical or nearly so, this suggests they were transferred mechanically, on equipment, clothing, feed or a means of transport. The research showed that the farms of the Midwest had infected one another.
The United Nation’s FAO actually states that “[m]uch of the scientific evidence suggests that domestic poultry provide a favourable environment for the entry, spread and shift to high virulence of influenza viruses, which were mostly mild and confined to waterfowl in the past. The dramatic growth in domestic poultry production is part of the explanation.”
The FAO also says that “[t]here is no benefit to be gained in attempting to control the virus in wild birds through culling or habitat destruction.”
Under German law, poultry must be killed even if they have a low pathogenic form of avian flu, out of fear that less dangerous strains can mutate into high pathogenic ones.
In the USA, when an infection is confirmed, all birds at the affected farm are destroyed per USDA guidelines: pumping an expanding water-based foam into the barn houses, which suffocates the animals, after which their bodies are composted.
Most countries follow similar policies. Instead of isolating operations where the virus is detected or suspected or that just happen to be within a certain radius of an infected farm, the knee-jerk reaction of the authorities is annihilation of all the birds.
Veterinarian care for sick birds is never considered; the quality of their lives is only measured in money.
Domesticated birds are a product to bring in financial gain. All measures to fight the disease are therefore purely economic. The authorities attempt to halt the spread of the disease by preventive culling. It doesn’t matter that some or all birds are disease free. It doesn’t matter that these animals have individual lives and interests. It doesn’t matter that they experience pain and fear. The consumers at home and the countries that import these ‘products’ have to be appeased and through international agreements countries force each other to be vigorous and thus merciless.
It does not only happen to birds.
The last large outbreak of classical swine fever in the Netherlands in 1997/1998, cost the lives of 11 to 12 million pigs.
In 2001, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, led to the destruction of more than six million cows, pigs and sheep in the UK.
In 2003, a cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) was found in the western United States and forced the destruction of 1.3 million other cows. The UK had already destroyed 4.5 million cattle after Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans and mad cow disease were positively linked in 1996.
Late 2009, 50.000 pregnant milk goats were destroyed in the fight against Q fever in the Netherlands.
In 2013, at least seven million piglets were killed when porcine epidemic diarrhea virus entered the US.
The list is long and will continue to grow until our animal exploitation practices end. The problem lies in our addiction to animal products. To sustain this addiction in an affordable manner on an overpopulated planet we confine the billions of animals raised for slaughter each year in barns and feedlots. This concentration camp style of keeping animals invites disease and makes sure that when a virus pierces the regulatory defences the impact is devastating. For the farmers it means a loss of profit, for the animals a miserable death to conclude a miserable life.
The culling is indiscriminate. It doesn’t matter if you are a free-range, grass- or grain-fed, pasture-raised, local, organic, natural, cage-free, one-hell-of-a-happy chicken. When avian flu comes around and threatens the industry’s profits, all poultry die the same horrible death.
If you are one of the growing number of people who cared enough about animal suffering to choose ‘free-range’ or ‘grass-fed’ over the standard factory farming fare, you should realise now that the only compassionate choice is to leave meat and eggs off your plate entirely.
Do not contribute to this misery! Go vegan!