A chicken on a farm surrounded by other chickens

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After dealing with the worst pandemic in generations, many Americans are likely more wary of emerging outbreaks than they were in the past. So not that “bird flu” ever sounded amazing, but in 2022, you’re justified in wanting to know what exactly is happening.

First, the bad news: Bird flu has recently been detected in the United States. On February 16, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) wrote that the Eurasian H5 strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) — as opposed to other strains that don’t necessarily make birds ill — had been detected in wild birds and domestic poultry in the United States, adding that “bird owners should review their biosecurity practices and stay vigilant to protect poultry and pet birds from this disease.”

The first known case — a wild American wigeon in South Carolina — was announced on January 14. The APHIS said this was the first time Eurasian H5 HPAI had been detected in a wild bird in the United States since 2016, and the first commercial incident since an isolated case in a commercial meat turkey flock in South Carolina in 2020.

Since then, the USDA has continued to confirm cases in both commercial and non-commercial flocks in at least ten additional states. Most recently, on Wednesday, the APHIS added Connecticut and Iowa to its list.

Avian influenza is unlikely to have any major impact on human health. The USDA reports that the United States has previously experienced HPAI outbreaks in 1924, 1983, 2004, 2014 to 2015, 2016, and 2017, and yet, “no significant human illness has been reported.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) seconded this notion, stating that “sporadic human infections with avian flu viruses have occurred,” but avian flu viruses “do not normally infect humans.” In the United States, the HPAI A virus has never been reported in humans; however, globally, since 2003, the World Health Organization has reported over 860 human cases in 19 countries “with about 53 percent of those resulting in death.”

Still, one more reason not to worry: The CDC explains that bird flu almost always stems from contact with infected birds, and the spread from “one infected person to a close contact is very rare, and when it has happened, it has not led to sustained spread among people.”

But though bird flu may not be bad for human health, it can have a major negative impact on the poultry industry. Currently, of the 17 confirmed cases in commercial and backyard flocks, eight of those cases have been at commercial farms with at least 15,000 birds, including at a commercial poultry facility in New Castle County, Delaware, with a flock of 1.2 million. Reuters reported that state officials said all the birds at that infected farm would be culled to prevent further spread of the disease, illustrating just how bad the impact of bird flu can be, especially to individual premise owners.

Still, in 2020, the latest year data is available from the USDA, America produced over 9.2 billion chickens, meaning the New Castle County incident alone won’t have a major impact on chicken availability, but it’s possible a domino effect of incidents could quickly add up.

That’s what happened from 2014 to 2015 when America faced its worst commercial bird flu outbreak ever. A 2017 USDA report estimated that outbreak had a $3.3 billion impact on the U.S. economy — $1.6 billion of which was direct losses from poultry flocks that had to be depopulated. In all, 50.5 million commercial birds were lost between December 2014 to June 2015 at over 200 premises across 21 states. Luckily, broilers (the whole birds that chicken meat is taken from) “were mainly unaffected during the outbreak,” according to the USDA. But about 10 percent of all egg-producing hens were killed, and egg prices shot up to the highest they’d been in 30 years.

So as should be expected, the USDA took plenty of lessons from that outbreak. And during this current outbreak, the APHIS boasts, “The United States has the strongest avian influenza surveillance program in the world.”

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