Don't Freak Out About the New Bird Flu Outbreak (Yet)

By Adam Clark Estes on at

Chicken farmers in Tennessee are about to shed a lot of blood. After noticing an unusually high death rate in a flock, some Tyson Foods-suppliers discovered that they were dealing with a new bird flu outbreak. Don’t worry too much, though: The USDA says humans should be safe.

The flock, however, will not. As one does when dealing with an outbreak of a dangerous disease like bird flu, the farmers are slaughtering the entire flock of 73,500 chickens. This, the US Department of Agriculture says, should be enough to stop the disease from spreading to other farms. Officials have also quarantined every chicken farm in a six-mile radius of the outbreak for more insurance against the virus getting humans sick. The USDA claims that none of the infected chickens have entered the food supply.

Animal lovers out there might be angry that a little avian flu outbreak will lead to the deaths of nearly 75,000 chickens. That’s just a drop in the bucket compared to 2015, when the worst bird flu outbreak in US history left some 50 million chickens and turkeys dead. While no humans were affected at the time, that ordeal cost American farmers hundreds of millions of dollars. It also hiked up the price of chicken and eggs for months.

Hypochondriacs reading this should take some solace in the notion that the USDA has contained the outbreak. However, this strain of bird flu is different than the 2015 strain, so we don’t know exactly how dangerous it could be. Bird flu can be deadly, however. A spike in human infections in China recently stems from a similar H7 strain of bird flu, and there have been multiple bird flu outbreaks across Asia, Europe, and Africa in the past three months. So that’s a bit unnerving.

All that said, the threat of a bird flu pandemic is extremely worrisome to health officials. Anyone who’s seen the movie Contagion knows that new strains of viruses, especially influenza, can spread frighteningly fast and kill large numbers of people. (The movie provides an accurate picture of what a destructive flu epidemic could look like, experts say.)

“For me the threat from avian influenza is the most serious (to public health), because you never know when,” senior WHO official David Nabarro told Reuters recently in response to the proliferation of new bird flu outbreaks.

But don’t freak out quite yet. For now, the virus hasn’t infected any humans in the US. Do pour one out for the sick chickens in Tennessee, though. They off to that big henhouse in the sky. [Wall Street Journal]