Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), or bird flu, is an extremely contagious viral illness that affects both wild birds and livestock, such as chicken and turkeys. As HPAI cases continue to rise in the U.S., University of Minnesota School of Public Health Professor Jeff Bender shares his expertise on the disease.
Q: Where does highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) or “bird flu” come from? Do wild birds infect domestic flocks?
Prof. Bender: Highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses are found in aquatic birds. These aquatic birds often serve as reservoirs for the virus and do not become ill, but are sources of infection for domestic poultry, such as chickens and turkeys. This virus is called “highly” pathogenic (Pathogenic refers to an ability to cause disease) because of how easily it transmits to domestic birds, such as chickens and turkeys.
Q: Can HPAI infect humans? And if so, on what scale?
Prof. Bender: Rarely. This often depends on the virus strain. At present, this particular strain has not caused human illness in the U.S., but state health departments are working with industry and agricultural officials to monitor workers and producers for any potential infections.
Q: In 2015, producers had to cull (destroy) millions of birds to stop the spread of HPAI. If they have to do that with the current outbreak, how will that affect poultry prices and availability for consumers? What could be the economic effect of HPAI on poultry producers?
Prof. Bender: In 2015, there was an impact on the availability of eggs, chicken, and turkey products. That outbreak had, at least, a three- to six-month effect on supplies and income for producers. Controlling the HPAI virus often involves culling infected poultry, and the 2015 outbreak had significant impacts on producers, but also on those workers and support staff who process poultry and eggs.
Q: Having to kill flocks and lose substantial income can have a devastating effect on farmer and farm worker mental health. Can you talk about that problem and explain some ways to manage it that we may have learned from the 2015 outbreak and/or work UMASH has done?
Prof. Bender: Outbreaks of avian flu can cause emotional and psychological stress. Mental health in this situation is a significant concern, not only for owners, but also the workers who depend on regular income. The stress also includes wondering if your flock will be affected and how you will control the outbreak. If infected, there are concerns about disposing of dead birds and the increased stigma from community members of working on infected farms.
One of the lessons from 2015 is understanding this impact; recognizing signs of stress and depression and providing broad support for producers, workers, and rural communities. On the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (UMASH) website, we provide some simple reminders in multiple languages of how to recognize stress.
Q: How is your work helping to mitigate future HPAI outbreaks?
Prof. Bender: Biosecurity protocols are important to reduce the risk of infections. Many of our state and Extension partners are providing tools to support these efforts. At UMASH, we have assembled in one place regional materials for producers, workers, their families, and clinicians.
School of Public Health Professor Jeff Bender is a veterinarian and director of the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (UMASH). Bender is an expert on infectious and zoonotic diseases, those transmitted between people and animals.