Experts recommend steps to avoid spread of avian influenza

Chickens in a grassy field.

PULLMAN, Wash. – Several cases of the H5N1 avian influenza virus in birds have been confirmed in Washington state, and animal disease experts at Washington State University are asking the public to take measures to avoid its spread.

The Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (WADDL) has now identified six cases in Washington state backyard poultry operations in the past eight days and is cautioning the public to keep wild birds away from backyard flocks. The virus was detected in Idaho April 15, Alaska April 30, and in Oregon on May 5. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the virus is now confirmed in 34 states.

“Persons with birds of their own, whether commercial or backyard flocks, should take appropriate precautions to protect their birds, primarily by keeping wild waterfowl birds from comingling with and infecting your flock,” said Tim Baszler, WADDL executive director.

As with past avian influenza outbreaks, WADDL on the WSU Pullman campus and Puyallup Research and Extension Center, conducts regular testing for the virus in Washington, Idaho, and Alaska.

Since 2020, when the H5N1 virus, a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza (bird flu), arrived in the United States from Europe, it has made its way west, mostly through wild waterfowl migration and private poultry flocks. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 37.7 million domestic and wild birds have died in the U.S. alone, making it the deadliest avian flu since 2015.

Although highly pathogenic avian influenza is a highly contagious disease among birds and can cause significant mortality among poultry, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of the virus spreading to people is very low.

With no vaccine or treatment available for bird flocks, currently the only way to control the virus spread among commercial or backyard flocks is to euthanize or depopulate the flock as soon as tests are confirmed, according to experts across the state. This is the best way to contain the spread and decrease overall animal deaths. 

Baszler said there are a few other things the public can do to reduce the spread of the avian flu. First, he said, keep domestic birds away from wild birds. If possible, birds should be kept in their coups or other indoor poultry facilities. He said fairs, shows, and any event where birds aggregate also pose heightened risk of bird flu transmission among birds. 

“I know it is tempting for backyard bird owners to feed wild birds, or have wild birds mingle with your birds but it’s absolutely what you should not do right now,” Baszler said.

Bald eagles and other raptors are especially susceptible to the virus, as they often feed on small birds that may be infected.

The threat does not appear to stop at just birds. According to the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, the disease was also detected recently in two dead wild red fox kits in Ontario. “It makes sense that predators that eat infected birds may contract the virus,” Baszler said. 

Avian influenza is characterized by ruffled feathers, tremors, respiratory issues, nasal discharge, diarrhea, struggling to walk or waddling, neurological problems (such has lack of fear of humans, head shaking, etc.), coughing, sneezing, and sudden death.

Washington state residents can report possible avian influenza cases in wild birds to the Washington Department of Fish Wildlife. Those concerned about their flock should contact the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s Sick Bird Hotline at 1-800-606-3056. Anyone outside of Washington should contact their veterinarian or local wildlife agency.

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