The United States Department of Agriculture reports that the bird flu virus can be transmitted from rabbits and skunks to birds. The study conducted by National Wildlife Research Center biologist Jeff Root is the first to confirm bird flu transmission from mammals to birds.
“When wildlife and poultry interact and both can carry and spread a potentially damaging agricultural pathogen, it’s cause for concern,” Root says.
Bird or avian flu has caused serious devastation to agricultural production around the globe, including in Canada where the Canadian Food Inspection Agency quarantined two parts of Ontario last year in an attempt to combat the spread of the H5N2 virus strain of the disease and Canada Border Services denied the import of poultry products from a handful of states in the U.S.
Earlier this year Canada, Mexico and the U.S. signed an agreement to harmonize procedures for dealing with avian influenza outbreaks and to create a working group to trade information on containment measures. Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council said that with Canada and Mexico making up more than two-thirds of all U.S. turkey exports, two-thirds of egg exports and a third of broiler chicken exports, coordination between government agencies is crucial.
“We’re hopeful that this agreement will be an important tool to provide our industries an adequate level of protection from poultry diseases while minimizing any impact on trade,” says Sumner.
The study involved inoculating skunks and rabbits with a low pathogenic version of the bird flu and exposing mallard ducks to pens in which the skunks and rabbits had been housed. One out of four ducks became infected after being placed in the skunk pen, while one out of five ducks in the rabbit pen were infected.
Up to this point, scientists have concentrated on tracking how the virus spreads from migrating wild birds to industrial chickens and turkeys. Carol Cardona, avian health professor at the University of Minnesota, says the new results “tell us a little bit more about an ecosystem we weren’t fully understanding. These viruses, we’ve always known that they get very eagerly into turkeys. Turkeys and ducks exchange viruses but skunks and rabbits? Who knew? So this is really exciting.”
Last year, avian flu in the U.S. caused the death of 48 million birds across 15 states -including a full ten per cent of egg-laying hens- pushing egg and turkey meat prices to new heights. And while some parts of the U.S. saw egg shortages last year, egg production has rebounded much quicker than expected, causing prices to fall 75 per cent from a high in August, 2015. The industry response “surprised virtually everyone,” says Chad Gregory, president of United Egg Producers in Alpharetta, Georgia, which accounts for 95 percent of the industry’s hens.
For the most part, avian influenza viruses do not infect humans, although some, including the H5N1 and H7N9 strains have done so. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that the majority of human cases of avian flu have resulted from direct or indirect contact with infected live or dead poultry and that there is no evidence that the disease can be spread through properly cooked food.