The United States government may be forced to add euthanasia by heat stress and suffocation to control the spread of the killer bird flu once it strikes again.

Just two months ago, the country suffered from heavy losses due to bird flu-infected chickens and turkeys. In case of a reemerging outbreak, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is set to condemn infected chickens to these methods if no other means are found to do so.

Aptly called "ventilation shutdown," the plan involves shutting off ventilation systems in chicken barns, resulting in death due to heat stress and suffocation. The USDA said it understands that some animal rights activists consider this option cruel.

Birds die from heat stress during the process, which lasts for 30 to 40 minutes, according to T.J. Myers, USDA's associate deputy administrator for veterinary services. He adds that the agency has never used this method and would never want to, but considers the ventilation shutdown a necessary alternative.

That doesn't stop activists from voicing out that the euthanizing methods are inhumane. They are asking for other ways to be used instead.

"Animals suffer immensely with any outbreak of an epidemic like avian influenza, and we shouldn't compound the problems for birds by subjecting them to a particularly miserable and protracted means of euthanasia," said Michael Blackwell, Humane Society of the United States' chief veterinary officer.

In June, the U.S. suffered a painful blow from avian flu when it spread to kill 49.5 million turkeys and chickens, with 42 million chicken and 7.5 million turkey deaths due to necessary euthanasia by the government. The chickens had to be put down with gas while the turkeys, with oxygen depleting foam.

Attempts to prevent the spread of the flu were ineffective, and vaccines are out of the question because trading partners will not accept exports of vaccinated birds. According to economist Thomas Elam, it already cost the U.S. $1.5 billion dollars to eliminate the infected livestock. Adding what the lost birds will further cost to egg and poultry sellers, food establishments and other poultry- and poultry farm-related businesses will amount to $3.3 billion in losses.

The U.S. government has already paid $190 million to farmers who had to eliminate their flocks, and has committed $500 million in emergency funds to facilitate infection control methods. They are also preparing for a possible resurgence in the fall due to migratory wild ducks, which may be carriers of the virus.

Image: Bob Doran | Flickr

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