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Expert: Avian Influenza Outbreak No Surprise

PHOTO: As several states in the West and Midwest deal with the outbreak of avian influenza, an expert on the issue says it was just a matter of time before the disease would spread. Photo credit U.S. Department of Agriculture.
PHOTO: As several states in the West and Midwest deal with the outbreak of avian influenza, an expert on the issue says it was just a matter of time before the disease would spread. Photo credit U.S. Department of Agriculture.
June 15, 2015

PHOENIX - The outbreak of avian influenza in several western and midwestern states, which has decimated hundreds of turkey and chicken operations, was a surprise to many. However, one expert says it was destined to happen.

Robert Wallace, who has worked with the United Nations and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on avian influenza, said the production model in the commercial poultry industry is a prime target for these types of outbreaks and must be changed to take into account that the birds grown are embedded into an ecology.

"When you organize mono-cultures of poultry, 50,000 birds in a barn, that is all just food for influenza," he said. "And if you develop diverse strains and stock of birds, that will provide the immunological diversity necessary to resist any pathogen that comes through."

Wallace said another key to preventing such outbreaks is through the restoration of wetlands, which would help keep infected wild birds from intermingling with commercial poultry flocks. There are no confirmed cases of avian flu in Arizona, but the state Department of Agriculture says infection is still possible as wild birds fly through the state. There are reports that the sickness has killed about 30 million chickens and turkeys in Iowa alone.

While the number of new cases of avian influenza appears to be waning, Wallace said it is cyclical in nature so he expects to see an increase again in the fall and winter. He also noted that there is a possible danger to human health, as the CDC recently warned.

"Now, I'm not saying it's going to happen," he said. "because there are plenty of avian influenzas that have emerged and that have not gone to going to human to human. However, there are many examples in which that has indeed happened, even within the last t0 years."

Details of the Iowa outbreak are online at iowaagriculture.gov. CDC guidance is at cdc.gov.

Troy Wilde, Public News Service - AZ