Poultry farmers, stressed by avian influenza outbreak, need access to mental health support [editorial] | Our Opinion

THE ISSUE: Gregory Martin, a Penn State Extension poultry expert based in Lancaster County, is worried about the impact the highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak could have on the financial and mental health of farmers here, LNP | LancasterOnline’s Nicole C. Brambila reported in the April 2 edition. Martin’s concern comes at a moment when, nationally, the number of US sites where the bird flu is present grew 40% in the first week of April, Lancaster Farming’s Philip Gruber reported Thursday. “The East Coast infections reported so far this month are four turkey farms in North Carolina, one backyard flock in Maine and another in western New York,” Gruber reported. Lancaster County is Pennsylvania’s largest poultry producer.

The continued spread of avian influenza in the US represents a gut-wrenching time for all those who work within the poultry industry.

As we noted in an editorial last month, a worst-case scenario is not anything that farmers here want to revisit. A bird flu outbreak in Pennsylvania in 1983-84 resulted in the deaths of more than a combined 17 million chickens, turkeys and guinea fowl and $60 million in losses for producers.

“Most of us know someone whose livelihood is dependent on this sector of agriculture,” we wrote in that editorial.

But a glimmer of a silver lining is that the threat of an awful repeat outbreak here has put the spotlight on a topic that is broached far too infrequently: the mental health of farmers and farm workers.

Martin told Lancaster County’s newly created Health Advisory Council that while the county’s farmers are resilient, they are not immune from the stress of worrying about potentially catastrophic events.

“You losing your birds, it’s a major economic hit,” Martin said.

Indeed it would be.

As we have noted, encouraging steps are being taken to raise everyone’s awareness about the potential consequences of a widespread epidemic.

“State officials (have) urged poultry farmers to bolster illness-preventing biosecurity measures, encouraging them to immediately report sick birds; limit nonessential access to farms; regularly clean farm-related clothing and equipment; and avoid sharing equipment with other farms, in addition to other guidance,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Sean Sauro reported in late February.

And the state’s Bureau of Animal Health and Diagnostic Services has been at the ready to help farmers with questions or concerns about the bird flu. They can call 717-772-2852 or email RA-ahds@pa.gov.

So, state and local officials have delivered the messaging needed to hopefully keep flocks in the county safe.

Now, we’d like to see officials get ahead of the curve in providing mental health support for farmers here who could face devastation.

Insurance won’t be sufficient to cover losses if an entire flock must be eradicated due to infection, and that economic reality can weigh heavily on those in the industry.

“There is no guarantee when birds can come back in. It can take months and months,” James Shirk, a Lancaster County native and longtime agriculture professional, told Sauro earlier this year. “It’s potentially farm-ending. It is truly that devastating.”

Imagine losing your livelihood or having it severely curtailed, just like that. (Small business owners hit hard early in the pandemic no doubt can relate.)

“Outbreaks of avian flu can cause emotional and psychological stress,” University of Minnesota School of Public Health professor Jeff Bender told the Faribault (Minnesota) Daily News this month. “Mental health in this situation is a significant concern, not only for the owners, but also the workers who depend on regular income. The stress also includes wondering if your flock will be affected and how you will control the outbreak.”

Bender emphasis the need to recognize signs of stress and depression and offer broad community support for farmers and farm workers, especially in rural communities.

His words should resonate here, too, where the Plain farmers represent a demographic that can be particularly challenging to reach in matters of public health.

Martin emphasized his concern for the mental health of farmers to the county’s Health Advisory Council. We’ve questioned, however, whether this council, which was approved by the Lancaster County commissioners last fall, can respond effectively to public health threats.

Each of the county’s four major health systems has a presence on the nine-member council, which meets on the first Friday of each month, Brambila reported. But the council is advisory only. As LNP | LancasterOnline has previously noted, it has “no power to take action in the face of a public health emergency. Instead, its members primarily will advise the county commissioners and help the county’s health and medical preparedness coordinator prepare for future emergencies.”

We strongly believe that what Lancaster County truly needs is a county public health department. But the two Republicans leading the county commissioners have made it clear that’s not in the cards.

So perhaps this is an opportunity for the Health Advisory Council to recommend meaningful action that the commissioners can then implement. Those recommendations could involve ways to bolster the messaging on the highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak and, crucially, to provide and advertise mental health resources for those in the poultry industry who may be struggling under all the stress.

Whether it comes through country action or some sector of the health care system, we must not fail to provide support for those who are facing daily dread as avian influenza spreads across the northeastern United States.

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