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Economic Impact of Avian Flu 

Avian flu has caused the deaths of millions of birds that were either infected with the disease or culled because they were potentially exposed to the Influenza virus that causes the disease.  The disease has devastated the poultry industry particularly in Asian countries. 

Avian influenza is not a new phenomenon.  The disease was first diagnosed in Italy over a century ago as the cause of “Fowl Plague”.  Since then, a Type A Influenza virus has been identified as the cause of disease.  All birds are susceptible to disease, although certain birds are more resistant against the virus.  Domesticated poultry are very susceptible to the virus thus making Avian Flu a dangerous pathogen to have on the farm. 

The avian flu first spread among humans in Hong Kong where it infected 18 persons in 1997, six of whom died.  Hong Kong had to cull the entire population of 1.5 million birds to effectively prevent the deadly H5N1 virus from spreading any further.  The latest outbreak in Southeast Asia in 2003-2004 has been much more deadly.  The disease has caused the deaths of 33 people in Thailand and Vietnam, and since the H5N1 strain has emerged in 12 countries.  The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed the presence of deadly H5N1 in Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Cambodia, Indonesia, China, Laos, and Malaysia.  In all, some 200 million birds were killed or culled by the virus in this area.  Since then, milder strains of the virus has been reported in Taiwan, Pakistan, the United States, Canada, where culling has also occurred to control the spread of disease and virus. 

There are approximately 6 billion chickens and 850 million ducks in the Southeast Asia region, where the area accounts for approximately one-quarter of the world’s poultry trade.  Two countries currently affected by the avian influenza outbreaks, China and Thailand, account for 15% of global poultry shipments.  With such massive culling of birds, there has been a devastating economic toll on the poultry industries of affected nations.  The problem compounds itself as embargos (bans) on exporting birds have been placed on these countries.     

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reports that economic losses to the industry could exceed $12 billion.  According to the WHO, “many of the countries affected are reporting highly pathogenic H5N1 infection in birds for the first time in their histories.  In some of these countries, around 80% of the poultry are produced in small backyard farms scattered throughout rural areas, further complicating control.”  Economic studies indicate that those hardest hit by the culling of flocks are individual farmers at the lowest income levels.  This becomes a socioeconomic concern, as avian flu further impacts these small farmers’s livelihood.  In light of the economic consequences, when poultry export industries and the livelihood of farmers are at stake, it is uncertain that affected countries will be open about the extent to which their flocks are infected.  This may have dire consequences for those trying to control the international spread of the disease.    

Also, the negative public perception of Avian Flu is negatively impacting the poultry industry.  The price of live broiler birds has tumbled to lowest in years.  Additionally, although there is no evidence that shows avian flu can be contracted from eating poultry or other poultry products, the scare that avian flu generates have declined market demand for these products.  So indirectly, the avian flu is impacting poultry industries that are not even affected with the virus.