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Can Vaccination Prevent Spread of Bird Flu?

The US has less justification than ever to reject this essential instrument for halting a pricey global disease that is harming our food supply.

Sonali Behera
Virus is still spreading and is even starting to become endemic in some areas, endangering both human life and property
Virus is still spreading and is even starting to become endemic in some areas, endangering both human life and property

Since January 2022, an exceptionally deadly strain of bird flu has killed more than 58 million birds in the US. Even if one sick bird is discovered, US farmers kill whole flocks of chickens to stop the virus from spreading. But those extreme steps didn't succeed in halting the destruction.

A new line of protection can be offered by vaccinating domesticated birds. Since 2003, there has been a vaccination that can be used to halt the virus from spreading. Its usage in other nations, particularly Asia, has shown that it is efficient in stopping epidemics.

The most recent outbreak of the illness has encouraged additional nations to begin immunizing their flocks. The US is still undecided about the merits and downsides despite the enormous loss of life, the financial burden on farmers, and the rising cost of eggs and other consumer items connected to poultry.

The main concern is that vaccines would prevent the US from exporting chicken to other nations out of concern that shipments of vaccinated birds might carry undetected illnesses. Such criticism would have been warranted if viral outbreaks were simpler to manage. But that's not the case now. The United States must immunize its chickens to prevent further epidemics.

History of Bird Flu

The highly pathogenic avian influenza A(H5N1) virus, sometimes known as bird flu, first appeared in Hong Kong farms and poultry markets in 1997. It later migrated to humans, infecting 18 individuals, 6 of whom died. As a response, Hong Kong killed all 1.5 million hens that were present on its industrial farms and at its regional poultry shops. While it cost both money and lives, the action succeeded in putting an end to the pandemic.

Hong Kong effectively deployed new hygiene, biosecurity, and virus-surveillance measures to lower the danger of outbreaks in the future. Yet by 2001, the virus—which was carried by wild birds—started to resurface in the markets.

In 2002, immunizations were tested in Hong Kong, and it was discovered that they were successful in preventing transmission and shielding hens against illness. The city made vaccinations required on all chicken farms supplying Hong Kong in 2003.

More than 30 nations now immunize their poultry against avian flu. There have been remarkable successes that go beyond simply getting rid of dangers to hens. Research shows that a decrease in poultry diseases in China, the nation that has used immunizations the most extensively, also decreased human infections.

Bird Flu in Today’s Scenario

Until the most recent epidemic, the majority of nations, particularly those that export chicken, were reluctant to implement immunizations. There are several causes. First, as the virus evolves, immunizations lose some of their potency.

Second, many researchers and policymakers are concerned that so-called "hidden illnesses" can persist in birds that have received vaccinations and get through border checks and safety nets.

Several nations are rethinking bird flu vaccines as a result of the current 2022–2023 outbreak, which is far worse. France, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Italy are testing vaccinations in Europe and will likely begin immunizing people in the fall.

The European Commission approved standardized vaccination regulations last month, including surveillance and biosecurity regulations that will find illnesses (if any) in flocks that have received vaccinations. These regulations are intended to facilitate the trafficking of immunized poultry across EU member states. In the meanwhile, France is continuing its discussions with non-EU trading partners to permit commerce in immunized chickens.

The recent epidemic serves as a clear warning that the virus is still spreading and is even starting to become endemic in some areas, endangering both human life and property. If done properly, vaccination is a proven way to stop outbreaks and transmission.

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