Victorians are going through a rough time with COVID-19 right now, moreso than anywhere else in Australia. You only have to watch the news for a short time on any given day.
Less well reported is the fact that in late July and early August 2020, around two weeks before I wrote this, two free range egg farms at Lethbridge Victoria, tested positive for bird flu, in particular, the highly pathogenic H7N7 strain of avian influenza.
The first farm was quarantined, hens were “destroyed”, and a buffer zone was established.
An ABC News article reported that this was was only the eighth outbreak of a highly pathogenic bird flu strain on an Australian poultry farm since 1976.
It also pointed out that 3 of these outbreaks have occurred in the last 8 years…
While H7N7 only rarely affects humans, those coming into direct contact with affected animals or their secretions, along with their close contacts, are at risk. At least for us, the effects are mild. Not so for the birds who contract it.
A veterinary epidemiology academic at Charles Sturt University, was quoted in the new report as saying:
Free-range production poses a higher risk because it is more likely that the virus can be introduced from wild waterfowl to domestic poultry in these types of properties when compared to conventional indoor poultry raising.(Marta Hernandez-Jover)
The CDC currently lists H7N7 as a moderate pandemic risk.
The Australian Government’s National Pest & Disease Outbreaks website documented the H7N7 outbreak, and then a few days later, on August 10, reported a low pathogenic H5N2 avian influenza on a turkey farm, also at Lethbridge… Soon thereafter, a second turkey farm, this time in Victoria’s East Gippsland, also tested positive to H5N2.
But there are worse avian flu strains, some of which do have a serious impact upon the health of humans (e.g. H7N9), and it’s a dynamic scenario. There’s mutation, especially in the presence of large populations of animals, where evolutionary experiments can play out over short timescales…
If these events continue or even increase in frequency, I can’t help but wonder whether there will be calls to dismantle free range, in favour of barn laid or worse, a regress to caged systems; neither, a good outcome for the animals, but I can imagine it being “declared” necessary by authorities.
But this either/or of free range vs barn, would be to set up a false dichotomy.
To protect humans from the Russian Roulette of zoonotic pandemic disease risk that we are currently subjecting ourselves to, while at the same time, not subjecting untold numbers of birds to a life that is nasty, brutish and short (as Hobbes might say), there is another option…
This also applies to all the other intensive animal factory farming scenarios in which zoonotic diseases can mutate and thrive.