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Avian Flu Outbreak Causes Concerns on Delmarva - September 6, 2015

    The Eastern Shore is known for corn, crabs and chickens. We take pride from growing some of the best poultry, seafood, and produce available and it is a serious business. 
 
    We have some of the largest producers of poultry products in the world located here on the Eastern shore, like Purdue Farms Inc. and Mountaire Farm Inc., which helps pump millions of dollars into our local economy. According to 2012 data from the Census of Agriculture, we have seven of the largest poultry producing counties nationwide. Out of the nine counties on Maryland’s Eastern shore, seven of them rank within the top 250 nationwide; Somerset comes in at #18, Caroline is a little lower at #20, Wicomico follows up at #28, with Worcester right after at #29, Dorchester is at #82, while Queen Anne’s is #124 and finally Talbot is ranked #235. According to 2014 data from the Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. the Delmarva peninsula alone produced over 3.74 billion pounds of poultry to be sold, employs 14,000 local workers and requires over 81 million bushels of corn and 29 million bushels of soy to be used for feed, both of which often come from local farmers. 
 
    All of these factors help to contribute to the incredible importance of poultry farming here on the Eastern shore, which is why the most recent outbreak of Avian Influenza, or Avian Flu, has caused concern, precautions, and worry. 
 
    Avian influenza is classified into two categories: low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) viruses and highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) viruses. These categories refer to molecular characteristics of the virus, which impacts how likely they are to cause serious damage to poultry. Both LPAI and HPAI viruses spread rapidly through poultry flocks, especially factory farming poultry flocks; however, LPAI tends to be much more manageable. Poultry infected with LPAI viruses may show only mild or no illness at all, but if they do they exhibit symptoms it would be something like ruffled feathers and a drop in egg production and therefore may go undetected. Infection of poultry with HPAI viruses on the other hand is very serious, as it can cause severe disease and has a high mortality rate within just a few days. 
 
    Avian flu is not uncommon and has been isolated from more than 100 different species of wild birds, although most of these viruses have been LPAI instead of the more deadly HPAI kind. The majority of the wild birds found to be infected were gulls, terns and other shorebirds or waterfowl such as ducks, geese and swans. These wild birds are often seen as the hosts for the avian flu virus and can quickly spread the disease across national and international borders. 
 
    One of the reasons avian flu is of concern is because it can spread in a variety of ways, like contact with infected saliva, nasal secretions, and feces. Uninfected birds become infected when they have contact with the virus as it is shed by infected birds, whether they are wild or domestic. They also can become infected through contact with surfaces or equipment that are contaminated with avian flu.
 
    It is exactly this kind of contamination that has many farmers, poultry producers, and everyday citizens worried not only in the U.S. but globally as well. Already, the recent outbreak of avian flu in the Midwest has prompted some states to declare a state of emergency and over 48 million birds have either been culled or infected as of late June. The outbreak has already cost over $1 billion in the economies of Minnesota and Iowa, which are two of the hardest hit states in the outbreak, and could also decrease profits for many poultry based or dependent businesses. Globally, more than 40 countries have restricted or placed total bans on American poultry imports because of the avian flu, which has created a surplus of some poultry products here in the states and created a complicated problem for poultry farmers and producers not hit by the flu yet. 
 
    Luckily for humans, the virus lacks the ability to infect us easily, whether it is the HPAI or LPAI version. Infection of humans occur when people are in very close contact with infected birds, like if they are treated as pets, as opposed to just some contact, like when farmers check their flocks. According to Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, the virus lacks the ability to infect human beings easily because the virus cannot attach well to the cell in the throat area to infect humans. 
 
    “Their attachment doesn’t fit into the receptor sites of the upper respiratory tract,” Dr. Schaffner said about the avian flu virus, “In those intense exposures the virus gets deep into someones chest and makes someone sick. Even if it is in that person, it does not readily spread to other people.”
 
    Humans who do end up contracting avian flu can end up facing severe symptoms including a high fever, severe respiratory infections and pneumonia. Unfortunately, the fatality rate can be extremely high for individuals with avian flu, reaching anywhere between 30-40 percent. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stockpiled a human vaccine for some strands of the virus in case of a pandemic, however it is highly unlikely that a massive pandemic would occur in the U.S. because of avian flu. 
 
 
Harrison Jackson is the Education Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 


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