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Bird flu

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before… Why did the chicken cross the road? To get away from the government officials.

First, the backstory, in case you haven’t heard. The United States is in the midst of the largest outbreak of Midwest bird flu yet and it has affected 14 states. Three of those states, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, have declared states of emergency. The impact on farmers is obvious, as are the repercussions to the consumer, with possible increases in the prices of chickens, turkeys and eggs. Food scarcity.

More than 21 million birds have either been killed or are awaiting destruction at press time. The federal government has already agreed to pay out more than $400 million in emergency funds to help cover farmer claims.

The government is taking another step, and this is where things get tricky. Officials are looking into creating a vaccine against this bird flu. There are a few problems with this. Scrambling to produce something without the time in place to fully evaluate the repercussions can lead to serious consequences.

One of the problems with bird flus is that they tend to mutate quickly, making it likely, especially in a rushed situation, that the vaccination would be a less than a perfect match to the virus. Two things can happen as a result. The first is that the vaccination is completely ineffective, thus wasting time and money in its development and distribution. The second is that it is somewhat effective, allowing affected but seemingly healthy birds to infect other birds as they become silent carriers. A bird could show no signs of being ill, yet shed the virus and spread it to other animals or possibly humans, if the strain mutates to allow for trans-species infection.

Biology tells us that with enough exposure, this nasty strain of bird flu will most likely make the jump. Remember that vaccination, unless the strain is perfect, will cause more virus exposure, not less.

Beside the health risks, vaccinated birds may pose an increased economic impact. The US cannot sell these birds to other countries if they are vaccinated. Vaccination causes the birds to produce antibodies, the same way the actual virus does. It is the presence of these antibodies that will flag foreign health inspectors. Thus, countries in trade with the US for poultry (an estimated trade of birds in the billions) will not wish to risk importing these birds.

So, let us look at the other way to stop the bird flu from spreading, through the careful and humane euthanasia of all infected birds and security of the location where they live so the virus does not get the opportunity to infect other bodies. The upside of this method is that it does seem to do a good job of discouraging the spread of the virus to humans.

Should the government continue working on a vaccination plan for poultry? What do you think?

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