Nationwide bird flu outbreak leaves Mid-South farmers concerned

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — An unprecedented pandemic of avian flu is wreaking havoc on the poultry industry across the country and here in the Mid-South.

The outbreak is taking a major toll on poultry farmers.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture says that more than 600 family farms in the state contribute to the commercial poultry industry.

An estimated 45% of the chicken consumed worldwide traces back to Tennessee operations.

“The eggs are the main thing, and it’s just a lot of pleasure raising them and seeing them and taking care of them every day,” Jonathan Bagwell, a farmer in Crittenden County, Ark., said.

The nationwide outbreak of avian flu has farmers like Bagwell taking additional precautions to keep his flock of chickens, ducks and peacocks healthy.

“One thing I do is, I don’t bring a whole lot of new birds in,” he said. “I wouldn’t go to a different location and then come back here with them. I can’t do a lot to keep migratory birds away, but they don’t show up too often here. I also just keep any eye out for any sickness or changes in behavior.”

Bagwell hasn’t dealt with any illness in his flock, but it’s a different story at one poultry farm in Weakley County, Tenn., about 2.5 hours northeast of Memphis.

After a sudden spike in bird deaths, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture said lab tests confirmed the H5N1 virus.

“My fiancée said yesterday she saw a couple of trucks come out of there hauling birds, and they had bio-hazard stickers stuck all over the trailers,” Will Burton, who lives next to the affected farm in Greenfield, said. “She couldn’t tell if they were dead or alive.”

Burton said an overwhelming stench has filled the air and deputies have blocked his street since Friday.

“I can’t imagine that it is healthy for something to be so intense and so dense and putrid that I am laying in my bed a quarter of a mile away and the inside of my house smells like rotting carcass,” Burton said.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture said the poultry at the farm is being tested and monitored for illness.

Although it’s rare, humans may also be at risk for the avian flu.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the bird flu remains primarily an animal health issue, but the agency is watching closely in case the virus changes to pose a greater human health risk.

Dr. Steve Threlkeld, an infectious disease expert at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, said on very rare occasions, the avian H5N1 variant of influenza has been transmitted to humans.

In the past 5 years, between 800-900 human cases worldwide have been reported.

Because the bird flu virus is much more potent than the strains that normally infect people, Dr. Threlkeld said the mortality rate is about 50% in humans.

Although it is rare, the CDC says bird flu virus can infect people when enough virus gets into a person’s eyes, nose or mouth.

Dr. Threlkeld said poultry farmers, or people who spend a lot of time around wild or domestic birds, are most at risk.

“It would be the sort of thing that would shut the world completely down if it got into humans in any large numbers, and that’s been our biggest worry for decades,” he said. “With all these cases running around, infecting and killing chickens, they’ve been around humans, we just have an increasing chance that it could happen because these viruses mutate, it’s what they do.”

The CDC says to avoid touching your mouth, nose or eyes after contact with birds or surfaces that may be contaminated with saliva or feces from wild or domestic birds.

You should always wash your hands with soap and water after touching birds.