The Denver Post

U.S. considers vaccinatin­g chickens as bird flu kills millions of them

- By Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Emily Anthes

The Biden administra­tion, keeping a watchful eye on an outbreak of avian influenza that has led to the deaths of tens of millions of chickens and is driving up the cost of eggs — not to mention raising the frightenin­g specter of a human pandemic — is contemplat­ing a mass vaccinatio­n campaign for poultry, according to White House officials.

The bird flu outbreak, which began early last year, is the biggest in the nation’s history, affecting more than 58 million farmed birds in 47 states, as well as birds in the wild. It has already spilled over into mammals, such as mink, foxes, raccoons and bears, raising fears that the virus that causes it, known as H5N1, could mutate and start spreading more easily among people.

Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose focus is human health, say the risk of a pandemic is low. As a precaution, the agency has sent drug manufactur­ers f lu virus samples that could form the basis of vaccines for people. The CDC is also exploring whether commercial test manufactur­ers would be willing to develop tests for H5N1, similar to those used for the coronaviru­s.

Bird flu infections in humans are rare, and transmissi­on of bird flu between humans is extremely rare. Worldwide, there have been nine H5N1 cases reported in people since the beginning of last year, according to the World Health Organizati­on. In Cambodia, an 11-year- old girl recently died from H5N1 and her father was also infected with it, though scientists have not found evidence of human-to-human spread in those cases and the virus was a different version than the one circulatin­g in birds in the United States.

Cases typically involve people exposed to poultry. In the United States, the CDC, in partnershi­p with state and local public health department­s, is monitoring people who are exposed to H5N1. As of last week, 6,315 people had been monitored; 163 reported symptoms; and one tested positive, according to Dr. Tim Uyeki, the chief medical officer of the CDC’S influenza division.

At the same time, officials at the federal Agricultur­e Department, which is responsibl­e for the health of farm animals, say they have begun testing potential poultry vaccines and initiated discussion­s with industry leaders about a large- scale bird flu vaccinatio­n program for poultry, which would be a first for the United States.

Farm birds are already vaccinated against infectious poultry diseases, such as fowl pox. But an avian influenza vaccinatio­n program would be a complex undertakin­g, and poultry trade associatio­ns are divided over the idea, in part because it might spawn trade restrictio­ns that could destroy the $6 billion poultry export industry. Dr. Carol Cardona, an expert on avian health at the University of Minnesota, said that the fear of trade bans was a huge barrier to the mass vaccinatio­n of poultry.

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