ANALYSIS – As the Chinese poultry industry counts the cost of the recent avian flu outbreak there, a chicken in Arkansas has tested positive for another low-pathogenic bird flu virus. Even if the infection can be contained quickly - which is a real possibility - it could cost the US poultry industry dearly in terms of lost exports. A similar virus has been found on another farm in northern Germany recently. The situation in Mexico threatens to become out of control, as we have reported previously. When and where will it end?
Just a few months ago, bird flu was hitting the headlines in China as people were being affected by the avian influenza A(H7N9) virus. Over just a couple of months, the World Health Organization reported 132 laboratory-confirmed cases and 37 deaths. All the patients were infected in China and a broad range of ages; none had particularly close contact with live poultry and none of them passed the infection to other people.
The H7N9 virus was found to be most similar to one originating in birds – hence the ‘avian’ nomenclature – but it had low pathogenicity in poultry. Live chickens showed no symptoms and it was some time before a link with poultry could be found at all. Eventually, live bird markets in the key regions were closed temporarily.
Ten weeks on, there have been no further reports from the WHO of further human cases, and the live poultry markets have re-opened.
But what about the cost to the poultry industry? Last week, the Chinese government granted subsidies of 300 million yuan (CNY; US$48.54 million) to prop up the poultry sector as it struggles to recover.
The latest figures from the China Animal Agriculture Association indicate that the industry has recorded losses of more than CNY40 billion (US$6.5 billion, at the same rate) since the first outbreak in March.
And that from a disease that is reported to have killed not a single chicken, had a minimal effect on human health – however regrettable the cases are on an individual, human scale – and the production losses were confined to one country.
Now let us turn our attention to the US. On 18 June, it was confirmed that one chicken in Scott County, Arkansas, was infected with an avian influenza virus. State officials quarantined all poultry within a 6.2-mile radius around the infected bird's farm and the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission has since confirmed that the chicken tested positive for H7N7, also a low-pathogenic virus to poultry.
There are no confirmed reports of the virus spreading – although it is said that one breeder flock has been destroyed as a precaution against further spread of the disease. Neither are there reports of humans becoming infected.
However, the US is the world’s no. 2 poultry meat exporter and Arkansas is one of the top broiler-growing states. Three countries - China, Japan and Russia - have announced they have halted imports from the state until the quarantine is lifted, which is likely to be after 90 days.
Even if no further cases occur, one virus-positive chicken could impact US broiler exports for some time and hence, the country’s industry.
It is probably no coincidence that since the virus was found in the US, Brazil and Argentina have had high-level talks over measures to keep poultry diseases out of their countries. Brazil is even producing leaflets for air passengers and poultry farmers to alert them to signs of disease.
No region is immune from the threat of avian flu. A second outbreak of the H7N7 low-pathogenic virus has been reported in Lower Saxony, one of Germany’s most important poultry-growing regions in the last week.
Avian flu can have, at best, huge ramifications for the poultry industry. We all need to be on our guard.
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