Governments killed 50 million birds after avian influenza outbreaks in 2021

A baby chick in the middle of a crowd takes time poses for the camera
Chicks at a farm, photo: johnnyscriv via Canva

Governments worldwide killed almost 50 million chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and other farm birds in 2021 after avian influenza outbreaks, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). 

The OIE added that the number is probably higher because they only calculated the number of animals killed at infected farms and not the birds who are killed in a zone around the farms in an attempt to control the virus. 

Every time bird flu is discovered at a farm, authorities immediately order farmers to kill all their animals and destroy their bodies. Farmer then continues ‘producing’ new chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and other birds for the food industry.

In some countries, authorities have ordered farmers to keep all their animals inside to control the spread of the virus. The ‘animal lockdown’ measure adds to the suffering most animals experience when raised solely as food and seems not effective.

In the Netherland, animals have been kept inside since October 26 last year, but since then the country has reported thirteen bird flu outbreaks, local media reported. Since the ‘animal lockdown’ was ordered, the Dutch government killed 900,000 chickens, ducks and turkeys after avian influenza outbreaks.

Intensive farming caused deadly virus
Bird flu, or avian influenza, is the same as human flu, swine flu and dog flu; it’s a disease caused by strains of influenza viruses. The highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of bird flu is currently spreading fast in Europe and Asia. 

There are two types of bird flu: one that does not make birds sick, the low pathogenic variant, and one that is fatal, the highly pathogenic variant.

“If we hadn’t had intensive poultry farming, the serious, sickening form of bird flu would never have arisen,” virologist Thijs Kuiken of Erasmus University Rotterdam told Dutch media BNNVARA.

“Normally, wild birds only carry the low-pathogenic variant. In intensive poultry farming, this mild flu mutated into a serious variant,” Kuiken said. “Years ago, this variant escaped from poultry farms in Asia, and since then, wild birds have also had to deal with it.”

What the serious form of avian flu can do to wild birds was seen in Israel, where 5000 cranes died. The ones who were still alive could barely walk. “These neurological symptoms are typical of bird flu,” Kuiken explained.

The virus can jump from birds to humans, with reported cases in 2021 in Russia, China and India. In the first week of 2022, the United Kingdom also reported a human bird flu case. Last year, almost 30 people died from the virus. 

As animal farms have grown immensely in recent years, experts think the virus could have evolved and changed into one that spreads easily between people. To understand the threat and increase of spillover to people, further investigation is urgently needed, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Animal welfare organizations have long advocated for more sustainable animal farming, which benefits animals and humans. 

“To prevent the next pandemic, we need to change the way we treat non-human animals. Animal welfare is closely linked to animal health, which in turn is linked to human health,” animal welfare organization Four Paws said, adding that industrial animal farming is one of the biggest threats to public health.

“In the long term, we have to realize that the intensive way of raising animals, with a huge number of animals huddled together in one spot, is no longer sustainable for many reasons. If we don’t stop doing that, we will automatically encounter another outbreak of bird flu or a still unknown ‘disease X’,” Kuiken said.

Read all articles on bird flu here.

The Animal Reader is a small independent news platform with daily posts about issues affecting animals.

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