Walking on eggshells: Avian Flu outbreak devastates bird populations

The assortment of eggs at Fresh Market in Coconut Grove is in short supply due to the effects of the Avian Flu. Photo credit: Sydney Billings

The U.S. poultry industry is scrambling to control the latest avian flu outbreak that has decimated bird populations across the United States.

The virus, known as Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (H5N1) has caused more than 58 million bird deaths in commercial and backyard flocks since Feb. 2022. As a result, the price of eggs and other poultry products have skyrocketed over the past year, rising by almost 60% in 2022.

Many UM students who purchase eggs from stores like Publix, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market have noticed the dramatic increase.

“The increase in the price of eggs has been utterly insane,” senior piano performance major Jonathan Reichenberger said. “Just a few months ago I used to be able to get a dozen for about $1.50 and now they’re at nearly $5 no matter where you shop.”

Even for students who don’t buy eggs on a regular basis, they still notice the rising price of poultry products elsewhere in their grocery bill.

“They don’t make a large impact on my bill because I’m not buying eggs every time I go to the store due to my allergy,” junior marine affairs major Kiera Fielding said. “I do notice when they make up a large portion of my bill even if I’m purchasing half a carton or the least expensive option.”

Egg cartons and limit notices displayed at Fresh Market in Coconut Grove
Egg cartons and limit notices displayed at Fresh Market in Coconut Grove Photo credit: Sydney Billings

The United States is not the only country affected by the outbreak. Given the migratory behavior of bird populations, H5N1 has spread across continents and affected over 37 European countries in the past two years.

On Oct. 31, 2022, England poultry farmers were ordered to put their farms on lockdown amid rising avian flu outbreaks.

The United States witnessed a similar case in 2015, where nearly 51 million birds died as a result of the virus. The majority of the outbreaks in 2015 were due to farm-to-farm transmission, whereas farm-to-farm transmission in the current outbreak only accounts for 15% of cases.

Once a bird is infected with the H5N1 virus, the animal may experience coughing, swelling around the head, diarrhea, tremors, fatigue, and overall produce less eggs. As the illness worsens, infected birds usually pass within 48 hours.

The recent outbreak also raises concerns about the possibility of a new “global influenza pandemic,” given that H5N1 has the potential to spread to mammals. In Montana, three grizzly bears were recently infected with H5N1, demonstrating that the virus has already mutated.

The virus is highly transmissible among avian species and spreads rapidly among flocks, but scientists are assuring the public that the risk of a rapid spillover into humans remains low.

UM students enrolled in biology and immunology classes have held discussions around the issue, asking the question of whether or not this outbreak has the potential to threaten human health.

“Once a virus is released into the world it never goes away. And for the rest of time, new viruses will keep mutating and becoming a threat,” junior biology major Izzy Sowells said. “That doesn’t mean that every virus will cause a pandemic on the scale that COVID did. We just have to take standard precautions and take scientific advice seriously.”