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A contagious and deadly form of avian influenza has spread across multiple states in recent weeks. The highly infectious virus has killed many farmed poultry and wild birds.

Since early January, the virus began killing chickens in northeast Canada, and it has made its way through factory farms and migrating ducks, geese, and swans from Florida to Maine. The virus has also been making its way through Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, with 300 outbreaks in 19 European countries in the last few weeks. In Israel, thousands of cranes have been killed at a nature reserve.

It has also made thousands of turkeys sick in Kentucky and Indiana, which began a mass slaughter of the birds and import bans. Officials were shocked at how efficiently and quickly this virus is killing the animals, saying the animals are dying within hours of the initial infection. In Indiana, according to NY Times, the state officials have already euthanized more than 100,000 birds.

This week, officials announced the virus had been found in the country’s largest concentration of poultry farms in Delaware, affecting the commercial chicken farms. Signs are going up across the country, blocking areas for people to stay away from.

The increasing infection amongst birds is troubling because it increases the possibility of the virus mutating in a way that would infect humans. The influenza virus has historically been behind human pandemics.

Officials are urging poultry farmers to report sick or dying birds and prevent contact between healthy and infected birds. However, on most farms, this is far from possible. Farms already have more animals than they should, and there is often little space for the animals they already have. These animals spend their lives confined in sheds with less than enough room to move around comfortably.

Scientists also noted that this virus is similar to an Asian strain that has infected hundreds of people since 2003. The virus doesn’t spread very easily, but when it does, it is incredibly deadly, with a fatality rate of 60%, according to the CDC.

Since the devastating avian influenza outbreak in 2014 and 2015, experts are concerned about how fast this is killing birds. The outbreak was one of the most destructive in the nation’s history. The price of poultry and eggs skyrocketed, it cost the industry more than $3 billion, and nearly 50 million birds were killed. But just as the government always does, it protected this cruel industry and compensated farms for the lost flock.

The government could be spending that money to prevent future outbreaks by changing factory farming practices and making the bird population more diverse. The real issue is the way that commercial factories farms run. The industry relies on genetically identical animals confined in inhumanly small spaces.

It is now estimated that all nine billion chickens raised and slaughtered in the U.S. each year can trace their lineage back to a handful of breeds.

These chickens have been manipulated over generations to grow at incredibly unnatural speeds and become larger than they ever have. According to The Humane League, chickens today are more than four times the size they were just 60 years ago.

Swabbing throats of baby hicks to test for avian influenza
Merrimon Crawford/Shutterstock

The lack of genetic diversity poses a massive threat to the industry and makes the animals more susceptible to outbreaks. It is a threat to public health.

Andrew deCoriolis, the executive director of Farm Forward, a group trying to end factory farming, commented that this is a threat to public health and the nation’s food supply.

“Instead of asking how factory farms can prevent infections that originate in the environment, which is how they frame it now, we should be asking how they can prevent infections that originate on factory farms,” he said. “If we keep raising more and more animals in these conditions, we should expect the exact outcome we’re getting because that’s how the system is set up.”

Sign this petition to help stop abuse in the poultry industry.

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