By Tom Polanek
CHICAGO (Reuters) – Bird flu has killed 50.54 million birds in the United States this year, making it the deadliest in the country’s history, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture on Thursday.
The deaths of chickens, turkeys and other birds represent the largest animal health disaster in the US to date, surpassing the historic 50.5 million birds that died from the avian flu epidemic in 2015.
Birds often die after becoming infected. All the animals, which can be upwards of a million birds in egg-laying chicken farms, are also killed to stop the spread of the disease when the birds are infected.
The loss of poultry stocks sent the prices of eggs and turkey meat to record highs, adding to the financial burden for consumers facing rising prices and making Thanksgiving celebrations on Thursday the most expensive in the United States. Europe and Britain are also suffering from serious bird flu problems, and British supermarkets have bought off customers’ eggs after the outbreak broke out.
The US outbreak, which began in February, has affected poultry and non-poultry populations in 46 states, the USDA reports. Wild birds such as ducks spread the virus, called highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), through their droppings, feathers or direct contact with chickens.
“Wild birds continue to spread HPAI across the country as they migrate, so preventing interactions between livestock and wild birds is critical to protecting US poultry,” said Rosemary Sifford, director of animal husbandry for the USDA.
Farmers struggled to prevent the disease from wild birds in their barns after increasing protection and cleaning methods after the 2015 epidemic. In 2015, about 30% of these cases were traced directly to wild birds, compared to 85% this year, the USDA told Reuters.
Government officials are studying diseases on Turkish farms, in particular, in hopes of developing new disease prevention strategies. Turkey farms account for more than 70% of the commercial poultry affected by the outbreak, the USDA said.
People should avoid contact with defenseless birds that appear sick or dead, although the outbreak poses a low risk to the general public, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.