By Elizabeth Whitman on May 07 2015 1:06 PM EDT
Every spring, a wide swath of sky over the Midwest known as the Mississippi flyway becomes a highway for millions of birds heading north after spending winter months in the warmth of Central and South America. But this year, this mass migration over central states in the U.S., including Iowa and Minnesota, has caused significant problems for bird farmers in its path. Some of the migrating ducks and geese are carrying a deadly flu and their droppings are somehow sickening millions of turkeys and chickens being raised in commercial birdhouses for food.
So far, roughly 25 million turkeys and chickens have died or been euthanized in the bird flu outbreak, the largest in U.S. history. The crisis has prompted poultry farmers in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and surrounding states to embrace heightened biosecurity — a set of tight sanitation measures that range from changing clothing before entering birdhouses to cleaning vehicles driven onto farms — to prevent droppings from wild birds, or any other germs, from being tracked into poultry houses. Yet birds have continued to fall sick, with flocks totaling more than 2 million turkeys and chickens reported infected Monday and five more farms suspected of having the virus on Wednesday.
That has left government officials, farmers and researchers alike grasping for answers as to how the flu has continued to infiltrate birdhouses. The deadly outbreak does not affect humans or food produced by the farms, but could eventually cause food prices to jump.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which coordinates with states in responding to the outbreak and also conducts research on bird flu, has no clear answers so far as to why the virus is spreading. “We cannot say definitely how specific poultry operations are becoming infected at this point,” Ed Curlett, a spokesman for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at the Department of Agriculture, said in an email. “We are examining affected poultry operations in order to learn more about how they are becoming infected and have yet to come to conclusions.” He added, “Sound biosecurity practices are essential to keep operations from becoming infected.”
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