Humans Can "Laterally Spread" Avian Flu

May 15, 2015

As the outbreak of avian flu continues to spread across the Midwest, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Friday that the virus can be "laterally spread" by humans.

The outbreak, which has now spread to 15 states, is thought to be caused by wild birds coming into contact with poultry flocks. Vilsack said it was definitely wildlife that brought the virus to the Midwest via the Mississippi Flyway, but now it appears the ongoing spread of it could be caused by humans, he told Iowa Public Radio.

"We've had circumstances recently where folks have been using pond water, for example, to feed and to water their birds. Well, that's a problem because the pond water could be contaminated," Vilsack said. "We've had situations where folks are supposed to shower before they go into the facility, but the shower doesn't work, so they go in anyway."

The USDA reports more than 160 outbreaks of avian flu nationwide. More than a third of the 33.5 million birds affected nationwide are in Iowa.

The governors of Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin have all declared states of emergency in an effort to slow the virus's spread.

Earlier this week, Iowa U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, both Republicans, sent a public letter to Vilsack expressing concerns that the USDA doesn’t give a clear timeline for the killing and disposal of infected flocks. After the birds are destroyed, the USDA suggests a full six weeks before a recently infected facility brings in new birds.

Asked about the letter, Vilsack said producers might be unhappy with the response, but the USDA has bio security procedures that must be followed.

“The issue isn’t so much that people don’t think that we are providing the answers. Sometimes they don’t like the answer we’re providing,” said Vilsack. “But we’re providing the answer that minimizes the spread of this. And we’re providing the answer that will ensure that if they have a reoccurrence of this that they’re not going to be stuck in a situation where we can’t reimburse them because they didn’t follow the guidelines.”

Federal officials say outbreaks will likely stop this summer when hot, dry weather kills the virus.

Although the virus is highly deadly to poultry, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the risk to people to be low.