In an effort to stop an outbreak of bird flu that could devastate Iowa’s poultry population, state health officials announced they will destroy up to 5.3 million hens to keep the virus from spreading. The fast-moving virus was confirmed on Monday at a chicken laying facility in Osceola County, Iowa. The birds compromise nearly 10 percent of Iowa’s egg-laying poultry population, according to the Associated Press. However, officials are concerned that the current strain could decimate important flocks in states where the virus has been reported.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture had initially estimated that 5.3 million hens were affected. But the company has since confirmed that it was operating below capacity at the time avian flu was detected at its Iowa farm, said USDA spokeswoman Joelle Hayden. “We went to great lengths to prevent our birds from contracting AI (avian influenza), but despite best efforts we now confirm many of our birds are testing positive for AI,” the South Dakota-based Sonstegard Foods said in a statement.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker called in National Guard troops to help disinfect vehicles after the virus was found in three turkey flocks.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert from Vanderbilt Medical Center, said the goal is to interrupt the transmission of the virus so it doesn’t spread further.
Bird flu is extremely rare in humans. While human cases have been reported — since 2003, 650 human infections across 15 countries have been reported to the World Health Organization — most of those infected had direct or close contact with infected poultry. There’s currently little chance of a human epidemic, given that person-to-person spread of the flu has been reported very rarely, and “has been limited, inefficient and not sustained,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC does warn that monitoring any cases in humans is vital since viruses are highly mutable and could gain the ability to spread easily between people. So far, no human cases have been reported as part of the current U.S. outbreak.
Symptoms of bird flu can include conjunctivitis, influenza-like signs (fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches) and lower respiratory disease requiring hospitalization. It requires a lab test to confirm the virus, which can be treated with antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu.