Have you seen the price of eggs recently? The high costs are due in part to fewer chickens to lay them – avian influenza has decimated poultry flocks this year. Avian Influenza, also known as Avian flu or “bird flu,” is highly contagious and deadly among infected wild birds as well as those being raised for food, such as chickens, ducks, and turkeys. Questions have been raised regarding the potential for avian influenza to impact people and businesses.
Avian flu is perennially an issue for birds. This year has been particularly devastating, with larger numbers of avian flu cases among birds around the world.
How does avian flu spread among commercial poultry? Avian flu viruses are found in wild birds who often don’t get sick from them. When wild birds pass the virus to domestic poultry, through feces or direct contact, the virus can cause them to get very sick. At times, authorities must sacrifice entire poultry flocks to stop transmission of the disease and prevent the virus from mutating to become more deadly or more transmissible. Thus, there is a large impact to supply chains from egg and poultry shortages.
Is Avian Flu an Immediate Threat?
Usually, avian flu viruses are not passed from birds to people. Although there are occasional human cases, the impact is low on a population scale. Most human infections have occurred among people who have had close contact with birds raised on farms. People cannot get bird flu from eating fully cooked chicken, turkey, or duck, because heat kills the virus.
A recent report suggested Avian flu infected and spread widely among commercially farmed mink in Spain in October 2022. This raised alarm bells as mink are closely related to ferrets, which in turn have served as a model for the study of human influenza viruses due to ferrets’ ability to become infected and display symptoms similar to humans.
Avian flu is not an emergency for the general public or for businesses, outside of companies working directly in the egg or poultry realm. It will have a low impact and doesn’t require immediate action for most of us.
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What Should Businesses Do?
This year’s avian flu outbreak is a reminder that many influenza or other viruses, or currently unknown pathogens could become the next pandemic. As we have learned over the past three years, another pandemic would impact our lives and our livelihoods significantly. An avian flu pandemic WOULD be scary as it is even deadlier than COVID.
PHC recommends businesses take concrete steps to build resilience in preparation for the next pandemic:
- Maintain policies that enable continuity of operations. Should the circulating avian influenza strains become capable of sustained human-to-human transmission, mitigation measures will be similar to those used during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially masking. Ensuring lessons learned from the pandemic are codified in policy builds business resilience. Turn-key mitigation measures should include establishing work-from-home trigger conditions, masking, and physical distancing.
- Encourage employees to receive the seasonal flu vaccine. Although the annual vaccine does not target H5N1 specifically, it bolsters workforce protection against the flu.
- Consider conducting tabletop preparedness exercises and pandemic impact assessments to evaluate the business’ state of readiness, and evaluate and address any gaps found.
Ensuring that COVID-era policies remain up-to-date and easily implemented is critical to maintaining preparedness for future biorisks.