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As if there aren’t enough viruses circulating, officials just found a ‘highly pathogenic’ one on the Eastern Shore. But it’s for the birds.

The words “highly pathogenic” and “influenza” aren’t words anyone wants to see in the news right now, but Maryland agriculture officials who sent a news release Wednesday didn’t mean to alarm any humans.

The influenza is avian, as in a flock of egg-laying chickens in Delaware tested positive for a virus that doesn’t pass to humans through food.

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The real threat could indeed be an economic one, as the Delmarva region that includes Maryland’s Eastern Shore is big in the chicken business — poultry is a $110 billion U.S. industry and eggs is a $97 billion one.

“There is nothing anybody needs to do unless you’re working on a chicken farm, in which case it’s always good to maintain good hygiene,” said Eric Toner, a senior associate in the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

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Avian influenza circulates constantly among wild birds and occasionally infects flocks of domestic chickens, ducks and turkeys. Sometimes, as in 2004, it spreads to concerning levels.

At that time, millions of birds were culled worldwide and some countries wouldn’t accept U.S. poultry exports. Growers took steps to contain the spread and the government stepped up surveillance.

The influenza is largely spread through feces tracked by shoes and truck tires off farms, but it also spreads from live bird markets that can be found in mostly immigrant communities in the United States.

Maryland officials emphasized that this is not a public health threat and that consumers need not take any action.

“Avian influenza does not affect poultry meat or egg products, which remain safe to eat and handle,” Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joe Bartenfelder said in a statement.

“As the ‘bird flu’ continues to spread across the United States and into our neighboring states, I urge both commercial and backyard flock owners to do everything possible to help prevent the spread of disease in our state, and the broader Delmarva region,” he said. “The easiest way to do this is to practice good biosecurity and sanitation practices, and keep wild birds away from your flocks.”

Agriculture officials said they are working with other state and federal officials on surveillance and testing in areas near the affected flock.

They recommended growers do things such as restrict access to poultry, use foot baths with disinfectant, cover seed to prevent wild birds from accessing it and properly contain bird poop.

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Backyard flock owners can email questions to md.birdflu@maryland.gov.

Tom Super, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, which represents the poultry industry, said though the bird flu was detected on an egg layer farm, the entire industry is concerned and on “high alert.”

He added: “The U.S. has the most robust monitoring and surveillance program in the world — and detailed plans are in place to control spreading among flocks and eliminate the virus completely.”

The U.S. poultry industry is the world’s largest producer and second-largest exporter of poultry meat and a major egg producer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The poultry and egg industry is a big user of feed grains, corn and soybeans, which also are grown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

In 2020, about 570 million chickens were raised in more than 5,000 chicken houses in the Delmarva region, which includes Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, according to the Delmarva Chicken Association. That amounts to 4.2 billion pounds of chickens that are mostly sold to major chicken producers such as Perdue Farms. It’s a $3.4 billion industry.

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Maryland also produced about 70 million table eggs in 2020, according to the USDA.

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Avian flu is a constant threat. It’s found routinely in live bird markets and an outbreak is recorded every few years on small, independent farms or on large commercial farms, agriculture and health officials report.

Most of the strains don’t easily spread to humans, though there is concern about mutations to more dangerous forms. A few dozen people died in Asia during such an outbreak in the 2000s.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list four avian influenza outbreaks since 2014 but no human deaths. Illness and death have been reported in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Pacific and the Near East.

Toner said there are likely to be more U.S. flocks infected with bird flu no matter what precautions are taken.

“It’s bad news for chickens, not people,” he said. “Even in other countries they are very rarely human infections and they are generally mild.”

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He said in coronavirus pandemic times, officials might want to rethink their headlines.

“Don’t we have enough to be scared of these days?” Toner said.


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