UPDATE: The United States Department of Agriculture has confirmed H5N2 in a Sioux County flock of 1.7 million hens. The USDA has not yet confirmed the presence of avian flu in the other four suspected flocks.
More than 6 million hens and juvenile chickens in northwest Iowa will be euthanized pending final confirmation of H5N2. The Iowa Department of Agriculture reports a total of five flocks may be affected by this highly pathogenic strain of avian flu.
H5N2 poses no food safety dangers, and there has never been a reported case of the virus in humans, but there is concern regarding the economic impact of the virus.
State officials have established a 10-kilometer quarantine around farms in O'Brien, Osceola and Sioux Counties. If initial tests confirm the strain of flu, all the birds on the properties will be euthanized to prevent its spread.
With the confirmation of these new cases, Iowa will have had eight total H5N2 outbreaks with nearly 9.9 million individual birds affected.
Iowa is the country’s largest egg producer. Nearly one of five eggs consumed nationwide in produced in the state.
H5N2 has plagued poultry farms around the upper Midwest and may cause price increases of eggs and turkey meat at the grocery store.
"It likely could have some impact, I don’t know what that is," says Iowa Secretary of State Bill Northey. "Certainly people can buy different meats, so it doesn’t always have as big as impact as it seems. Even though to producers it’s a huge, huge deal."
The United States Department of Agriculture compensates producers for euthanized birds, but not for the birds killed by the virus. H5N2 can wipe out entire flock within days.
"The turkeys will go off water and feed. And once they start doing that it doesn't take very long for the birds, you're talking hours at times, for the birds to become very lethargic...followed pretty rapidly by death," says Dr. John Clifford, the USDA's Chief Veterinary Officer. "In the chickens...you can see a drop in egg production. And some of the same symptoms of going off feed and being lethargic prior to death."
Northey says the economic impact of each H5N2 outbreak extends beyond individual poultry farmer.
"If you've got a facility that’s producing 4 million eggs, they’re using about 4 million bushels of corn a year," Northey says. "Certainly the soybean meal, a lot of employees, other impacts at that site from electricity, to the litter that was going to replace fertilizer. Lots of other things."
Is is unclear how long each of the five affected sites will be out of commission if the virus is confirmed. The larger the flock size, the longer the eradication and cleaning periods.
Iowa's first case of H5N2, a Buena Vista turkey farm, has finished euthanizing it's 27,000 birds. Now another round of testing for traces of the virus is underway.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture says it doesn't know much money it has available to mitigate this crisis. At one time the state's avian influenza fund contained roughly $137,000.
"We just haven't done the math yet to know exactly where we're at, whether we've spent $10,000 of that or $100,000." says Northey. "Last time I think that money was added to that fund was 2010. We have not used that fund until this round."
The fund pays for testing and sampling of birds, as well as staffing and millage.
H5N2 is affecting the upper Midwest more than other parts of the country. Researchers say the disease spreads through the feces of migratory waterfowl like geese or ducks, which are unaffected by the virus.
Poultry producers have taken bio security measures such as disinfecting feed trucks with spray and having staff wear plastic clothing. Northey says it is possible the virus reaches flocks through a barn's ventilation.
H5N2's spread is expected to drop off in the summer. The USDA says the virus does not survive as well in warmer, dry weather.
"As we get into the spring and the summertime we also have a lot more sunshine. And with the sunshine comes ultraviolent and ultraviolet will kill influenza virus," says Dr. David Swayne of the USDA's Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory. "It's kind of hard to just predict a particular date...It involves the climate, the temperature itself, and the amount of humidity."
Swayne's lab is in early stages of developing a H5N2 vaccine. Even if a vaccine is found, it may not be feasible to inoculate flocks that reach thousands if not millions of birds.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises people steer clear of wild birds as well as bird feces, and to avoid contact with poultry that appear ill or dead.