Around 2014, a new hybrid strain of avian influenza made its way from Eurasia to the poultry farms of the American Midwest. The virus trailed the migration routes of wild birds to North America. This strain ignited the worst avian flu epidemic in United States history that lasted until late 2015. The highly contagious flu devastated the poultry industry, leading to the death of 50 million birds due to infection or culling by farmers.

The epidemic caught the interest of Erica Cirino, journalist, environmentalist and Stony Brook graduate. Cirino obtained a master’s degree in journalism from Stony Brook University and a bachelor’s in environmental studies with a minor in environmental humanities. Her lifelong love of animals and work as a wildlife rehabilitator led her to cover the biggest outbreak of avian flu in the United States as her final master’s project.

In September, she made the journey to Wisconsin, the location of the United States Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, to observe the work of renowned microbiologist, Hon Ip, Ph.D.. Cirino spoke about the importance of this site, mentioning that the U.S. Department of Agriculture also had a unit present there and that observing the two different responses was crucial to her story. The U.S. Geological Survey, also known as USGS, was more concerned with studying the virus, meanwhile the Agriculture Department was preoccupied with preventing an all-out agricultural and economic disaster.

Upon arriving at Ip’s lab, she was made to sign several waivers stating that she would not sue the USGS in case she contracted the virus. There she witnessed several important processes used in the fight against avian flu, such as polymerase chain reaction, a method used to amplify DNA so researchers can detect mutations in the virus.

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She was also able to meet Chief Epidemiologist Brian McCluskey of the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Veterinary Services branch. Cirino, who had never dealt with government to such an extent before, remembers the top-secret, highly classified atmosphere of the site.

Recalling one incident, she said: “When we were leaving the USDA’s Wildlife Center, the alarm went off, and one of the young men who worked there said ‘Oh s—, I think that just triggered Homeland Security.’”

She also mentions how the Agriculture Department’s main concern was how badly the avian flu would cripple the food supply of the nation. The department made efforts to protect the farmers and consumers, since the cost of doing business goes up as scarcity increases and it gets passed down to consumers.

“In some parts of the United States eggs were very hard to find, and the cost almost doubled,” she said.

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In her blog, Cirino cites Tom Elam, Ph.D., president of Farm Econ LLC, who estimated that the damage cost turkey producers up to $530 million and $1.04 billion for egg producers, and that the outbreak cost the U.S. economy approximately $3.3 billion.

Cirino said she was astonished by the lack of regulation in the poultry industry. Regulations and standards are set by individual farms, and workers are obliged to follow them, she said. However, there are no official government laws to enforce these standards and make sure farms are being run hygienically. The only federally mandated obligation farmers have is once avian flu is detected. This is called “C and D” or “clean and disinfect.”

“After depopulating the flock, which is done by gassing the birds or killing them with firefighting foam, farmers then clean and disinfect,” she said. “So there is a government regulation with that, but in terms of preventing avian influenza, there isn’t anything mandated that’s in place.”

The lack of regulation is alarming. Cirino described how even as she arrived in Wisconsin in September, and the peak of the outbreak was months past in June 2015, the memory still haunted farmers and government officials. In January 2016, a new strain of the avian influenza caused a mini-outbreak in poultry farms in Indiana, demonstrating that despite the farmers and government scientists’ best efforts, the nightmare is still not over for the fowl farmers of the Midwest.

However, to end on a positive note, Cirino reassured that the strain of the virus currently in North America was a hybrid and not the same as the avian flu strain found in Eurasia. This means that the virus in the United States currently cannot be passed on from infected birds to humans, easing some worries for the time being.

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FEATURE IMAGE CREDIT: Keith Evans

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