The bird flu outbreak is the deadliest in U.S. history. Here's what we know The U.S. is enduring its worst poultry health disaster, with some 52.7 million birds dead. Unlike another recent outbreaks, this one has lasted through the summer — and it's still going strong.

What we know about the deadliest U.S. bird flu outbreak in history

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Here in the U.S., inflation because of supply chain disruptions, the attack on Ukraine and other issues we've been talking about has been a major story. But if you've seen prices of eggs going up at the store, inflation may not be the only reason. The country is in the middle of the worst poultry health disaster in our history. A highly contagious bird flu virus has led to the deaths of nearly 53 million birds. The virus has hit flocks in nearly every state, and the spread doesn't show signs of stopping anytime soon.

Joining us to talk about all this is NPR's Bill Chappell, and he's with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.

BILL CHAPPELL, BYLINE: Sure thing.

MARTIN: So obviously, people in the industry knew about this and have been dealing with this for months. But part of the reason we're talking about this now is that this outbreak seems to be surging. Is that right? And why?

CHAPPELL: Well, this past week, the deaths from this avian influenza outbreak surpassed the outbreak of 2014 to '15. But the situation's really different now from what it was then. Experts I was speaking to said two big things are different. This virus is thriving in wild birds, and it's managed to stick around through the summer. It usually dies, just like human influenza would die off during the summertime. This one has stuck around, and now we're back into a new surge in the winter.

MARTIN: So tell me more about this, like how this virus is spreading.

CHAPPELL: Well, in that last outbreak, people were seeing the virus moved from farm to farm. So they focused on things like using disinfected and making sure workers used different boots and equipment when they moved from a barn to another barn. That seemed to help, but this outbreak is now driven by wild birds migrating around the country. And they can fly everywhere because wild birds like ducks can be infected with this virus and seem fine and not show any symptoms. But if this virus reaches a chicken, the CDC says it'll probably be dead within 48 hours with multiple organs affected.

MARTIN: That's an extraordinary number of deaths. And I was wondering, is that because the birds are dying from the virus, or are they being culled, as it were? I mean, it's such an antiseptic word, but basically, are...

CHAPPELL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Poultry farmers having to basically destroy their flocks in order to contain this virus?

CHAPPELL: Well, yeah. I think antiseptic is the word and the point because they really - I mean, to go even further, they say it's depopulating a flock, depopulating a place. One case of this is enough to trigger that mechanism. And in a couple of cases earlier this year, we had farms that had to do away with 5 million birds just to prevent cases spreading further.

MARTIN: So what kind - I mean, look, I don't want to minimize the effect this has to have on farmers and on the animals themselves, which I just think has to be just very traumatic for everybody involved with this. But I do have to ask what effect this is having on consumers and on the prices we see at the grocery store.

CHAPPELL: Well, if you like to eat chicken, you're not so bad off. This version of the influenza virus doesn't affect broilers. That's what they call the chickens that are raised for meat. Here's Amy Hagerman. She's an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University. She specializes in agricultural economics.

AMY HAGERMAN: The chicken that most people think of, their chicken tenders, their chicken sandwiches, you know, all of those things, their chicken breasts that they like to cook at home, they haven't tended to have the same kinds of impacts.

CHAPPELL: But Hagerman tells me egg-laying hens are a completely different story. Turkeys are also affected by this a lot. And some of those egg-laying operations in particular are massive - like, millions of birds. And when one of them has to go offline, it can really disrupt the supply chain and cause prices to go up here in the U.S.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, what about vaccines? Is that an option?

CHAPPELL: Right. I mean, we've all been trained - kind of the process of a pandemic in these last few years - vaccines kind of - you look for them. But there are lots of challenges with that. I mean, we're talking about international trade partners that might not allow vaccines to be used to fight this. And if it did happen, there would be the question of timing. Like with people, two doses of vaccine would probably be necessary to cause an animal to become immune, and then they'd have to clear the virus before they could be harvested. It could also bring up brand-new problems, like how can you be sure if a vaccinated bird isn't infected with this really terrible virus, but it's just not showing symptoms because it's vaccinated?

MARTIN: That's NPR's Bill Chappell. Bill, thanks so much for your reporting. It's a - this is a difficult story but thank you for bringing it to us.

CHAPPELL: Sure thing. I agree. Thanks, Michel.

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