Bird flu a concern for health authorities

Flock owners urged to take precautions

Avian flu cases are causing concerns for health authorities, with mostly small outbreaks occurring throughout the state, although none have occurred on the North Olympic Peninsula this year.

The virus has not been seen to spread from human to human — although some cases of transmission from birds to humans have been reported worldwide — but domestic bird populations, mostly backyard flocks, are at risk and some have had to be culled.

Dr. Allison Berry, health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties, told the Jefferson County Board of Health last week that the county saw six wild birds infected and two backyard flocks impacted, and while there was human contact for those birds, there have been no positive cases in humans.

In May, two non-related backyard flocks were detected in Clallam County, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

“The challenge with avian influenza is its high pathogenicity. It’s nearly 100 percent fatal for infected birds, and it’s incredibly transmissible among birds,” Berry said.

“Standard practice is to cull the flock. It can be very devastating to farming communities and families with flocks.”

Avian Influenza

Bird flu is officially known as Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza. “Highly pathogenic” means the virus is extremely contagious and can spread rapidly, devastating bird populations.

A commercial farm in Franklin County euthanized more than a million birds in December following an avian flu outbreak, and the spread of the disease nationwide has contributed to egg shortages locally and nationally.

As a virus, Avian Influenza can mutate and potentially affect humans — a 2016 strain in Asia infected more than 700 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — but that has yet to happen with the current virus in the U.S., Berry said.

“Thankfully with Avian Influenza it’s stopping at human transmission. We’ve seen some spill over into other animals, but not humans,” Berry said.

According to the CDC, the current strain of avian flu — H5N1 — has been detected in foxes, bobcats and feral cats and dogs. Transmission to mammals is most likely through animals eating infected birds.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recorded positive cases of bird flu in bald eagles, Canada geese and swans in 2022.

Avian flu is highly transmissible, and though humans might not become infected, they can transfer the virus between flocks.

“It’s something that is still very prevalent in our state, something we are actively looking out for and looking to eradicate,” said Amber Betts, spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture.

“The quicker that we can find it, the more likely we are to not having it spread any further,” Betts said.

If flock owners suspect they have birds that are infected with avian flu, the first thing they should do is contact WSDA, which can get the birds tested, if necessary. Betts said state labs can determine if a bird is positive for avian flu, but not which strain. That has to be done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If a bird does test positive for avian flu, Betts said the department will assist will euthanizing the birds and disposing of the carcasses.

Betts said the department is asking flock owners to practice what’s called biosecurity, or taking certain precautions to prevent the spread of avian influenza.

“One of the biggest ways we’re seeing this spread is through wild bird introduction, specifically wild waterfowl,” Betts said. “You want to be aware of the water sources that they have, you want to make sure that they have a dedicated water source for your flock and one that is not accessible by wild waterfowl.”

Avian influenza is highly transmissible through surfaces, and Betts said that in the event of potential contamination, disinfectant should be used to clean surfaces. WSDA is also recommending that owners have a dedicated pair of shoes to use when tending to the flock, as the virus can be tracked in from public areas where wild waterfowl may be, such as a park.

If a positive case is discovered, WSDA creates a 10-kilometer surveillance zone and asks that flock owners report any potential cases. A map of current surveillance zones is available on the WSDA website.

Currently, there are four active zones in the state in Thurston, Pierce, Snohomish and Benton counties.

Like influenza in humans, symptoms of bird flu include coughing and sneezing, diarrhea and lack of energy. Sudden death without any prior symptoms of illness can also be a sign of avian influenza.

Infected bird carcasses should not be disposed of in fields where wildlife might get to them, and should be bagged and placed in the trash, buried or incinerated.

Sick or dead birds should be reported to the Department of Agriculture by phone at 800-606-3056 or to WDFW online at wdfw.wa.gov.

To contact the Avian Health Program, email avhealth@agr.wa.gov or call 360-902-1878.

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Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at peter.segall@peninsuladailynews.com.

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