Avian influenza (bird flu) is a viral illness found in birds. Wild birds can carry a number of avian influenza viruses, but most strains of avian influenza virus do not seriously affect them.
One particularly virulent form of avian flu caused by a strain of virus known as Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza H5N1 (HPAI H5N1) arose in 1996, and has sickened and killed birds in Asia, Africa and Europe. After close contact with infected domestic birds, more than 100 people in Asia also have died from HPAI H5N1 virus.
Avian flu viruses are transmitted among birds through respiratory secretions and fecal droppings. The HPAI H5N1 virus is not easily transmissible from birds to people, but health officials are concerned it could develop into another form that spreads readily from person to person, triggering a global health crisis known as a pandemic.
Although avian flu is has made headlines, it is important to note that:
- To date, the HPAI H5N1 virus has not been found in North American wild or domestic birds.
- There is no evidence that properly cooked waterfowl (or domestic poultry) can sicken people.
General studies of avian influenza in wild birds have been underway in Alaska for many years, with no positive cases of HPAI H5N1 detected to date. Surveillance in Alaska and the rest of the US should provide a means of detecting HPAI H5N1 if it enters North America from wild birds migrating from Siberia or other parts of Asia.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is collaborating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on a nationwide surveillance effort for early detection of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI H5N1) in wild birds.
The joint surveillance effort in Washington state for 2009-10 calls for testing 1,300 hunter-harvested and live wild birds. WDFW’s portion of the sampling is funded with $187,150 from the USFWS and $70,000 from USDA. Wild bird sampling began in July, focusing on several species of migratory shorebirds and waterfowl most likely to have interacted with Asian migratory birds in the Arctic during the summer. Initial testing of live birds is taking place in the northern Puget Sound area, coastal estuaries and in the northern Columbia Basin.
In addition, WDFW is part of a state network for collection and testing of dead birds. Die-offs of multiple wild birds should be reported to WDFW, by calling 1-800-606-8768. If the deaths appear unusual, samples are sent to veterinary laboratories to test for diseases, including avian flu.
While it is extremely unlikely that hunters or people feeding birds could contract HPAI H5N1 from wild birds here, the following common-sense precautions are always recommended to reduce the risk of contracting any wildlife disease:
- Do not harvest or handle wild birds that are obviously sick or found dead.
- Wear rubber gloves while cleaning game or cleaning bird feeders.
- Do not eat, drink or smoke while cleaning game.
- Wash hands with soap and water or alcohol wipes immediately after handling game or cleaning bird feeders.
- Wash tools and work surfaces used to clean game birds with soap and water, then disinfect with a 10 percent solution of chlorine bleach.
- Separate raw meat, and anything it touches, from cooked or ready-to-eat foods to avoid contamination.
- Cook game birds thoroughly-meat should reach an internal temperature of 155 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit to kill disease organisms and parasites.
Dogs used in wild bird hunting are not considered at risk of acquiring avian flu, since there have been no documented cases of the HPAI H5N1 virus infecting dogs. Cats, however, are susceptible to the HPAI H5N1 virus. Dog and cat owners should consult their veterinarian for more information about influenza in pets.