Deadly bird flu had earlier start this year

By: - March 21, 2022 5:18 pm

Avian influenza can be transmitted by migrating birds. (Photo by Scott Bauer/USDA Agricultural Research Service)

The first confirmation of a deadly and highly infectious avian influenza in Iowa this year came six weeks earlier than it did in 2015, when more than 32 million birds of infected flocks were culled to prevent the spread of the virus.

The 2015 outbreak began April 13 and lasted for about two months. This year’s first confirmation was March 1.

The source of the virus is widely believed to be wild, migratory birds that are infected and passing through the state. The spring migration started earlier this year than in 2015, said Chloe Carson, a spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, which is attempting to track and contain the disease.

It’s too early to predict whether the virus will affect Iowa during a similar two-month time frame as 2015 or whether that window of infection will widen, she said.

“At this point in time we can’t say what effect that will have in the sheer number of cases or detections or length of time,” Carson said.

State officials detected the virus for the fifth time on Sunday, in a Warren County flock of fewer than 50 chickens and ducks.

In the past three weeks since the first detection in Pottawattamie County, nearly 6.3 million birds have been euthanized in Iowa because of the virus. In 2015, about 16 million birds were affected in the first three weeks of the outbreak.

Humans are unlikely to be infected, and meat and eggs from infected flocks are discarded.

Farm losses, price increases

Financial losses from the 2015 outbreak were estimated to be about $1.2 billion, according to a study commissioned by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. About two-thirds of that figure was attributed to lost egg and meat production, and one-third was lost wages for workers at the facilities.

“Bird flu is devastating for farmers,” said Kevin Stiles, executive director of the Iowa Poultry Association and the Iowa Egg Council.

Iowa is the country’s top producer of eggs, and production losses led to a 61% increase in egg prices compared with the previous year, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study in 2017.

“Egg consumers are less likely to reduce purchases when prices climb, creating the potential for prices to surge when supplies run short,” the department said at the time.

Consumer prices for chicken and turkey meat did not spike in the same way because of reduced demand, in part because several countries imposed trade restrictions on U.S. poultry exports, the study found.

Mike Naig, the state’s secretary of agriculture, has been reluctant to predict the full effects of this year’s outbreak, including whether bird exhibits will be canceled at state and county fairs. State officials canceled those exhibits on May 21, 2015, over fears that the virus might be carried from the fairs to areas that hadn’t been infected.

Then-Gov. Terry Branstad declared a state of emergency about three weeks into the 2015 outbreak to mobilize state resources to help detect and contain the virus. Gov. Kim Reynolds has relied on disaster proclamations for specific counties.

State agricultural officials said they now have a goal to cull infected flocks within 24 hours and to dispose of the birds on-site, either by incinerating them or burying them. That’s meant to decrease the risk of transmission to other flocks in nearby facilities, which happened in 2015, Carson said.

The state has also established monitoring and quarantine zones that extend about six miles from the affected sites.

“We learned a lot following 2015 in terms of response and protocols,” Carson said.


Highly pathogenic avian influenza detections in Iowa this year include:

March 1: A backyard flock of 42 chickens and ducks in Pottawattamie County.
March 6: A commercial flock of 50,000 turkeys in Buena Vista County.
March 10: A commercial flock of 919,000 egg-laying chickens in Taylor County.
March 17: A commercial flock of 5.3 million egg-laying chickens in Buena Vista County.
March 20: A backyard flock of fewer than 50 chickens and ducks in Warren County.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.