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Avian Influenza
Last updated October 2009

Questions & Answers


American Wigeon

Contacts:
Kristin Mansfield

WDFW Veterinarian
(509) 892-1001, ext. 326
or cell (509) 998-2023

Margaret Ainscough
WDFW Public Affairs Director
(360) 902-2408

While it's highly unlikely that hunters or people feeding birds could contract avian flu from wild birds here, following these standard precautions reduces 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 meat thoroughly, to an internal temperature of 155 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

What is avian influenza?

Avian influenza, sometimes called "bird flu," is a viral disease. Wild birds naturally harbor various strains of avian influenza, usually without being seriously affected by the virus. Domestic poultry, on the other hand, are highly susceptible to certain strains of avian influenza. Health officials are concerned about a specific sub-strain of avian influenza known as Highly Pathogenic H5N1 (HPAI H5N1) because about 200 people in Asia and Europe have contracted it after close contact with domestic poultry. The HPAI H5N1 strain has not been found to date in North American wild or domestic birds. The term "highly pathogenic" refers to the viral strain's effect on domestic poultry, not on people.

Why are birds being tested in Washington state?

The Washington testing program is part of a nationwide surveillance effort for early detection of HPAI H5N1 in wild birds. Washington state is located within the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south route of travel for migratory birds. Those migrants include several species of shorebirds and waterfowl that may have interacted with Asian migratory birds in the Arctic in recent months. If those Asian birds carried the HPAI H5N1 strain of the virus, it is possible they transmitted the virus to North American migratory birds. The Washington testing program is aimed at providing early detection of the H5N1 strain if it is present in wild birds here.

Is the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) the only agency testing wild birds for the disease in this state?

No. WDFW is one of several state and federal cooperators in a joint statewide effort. The majority of funding for Avian Influenza surveillance is provided by the USFWS and 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.

Which birds will be tested?

Migratory shorebird and waterfowl species that are most likely to have interacted with Asian migratory birds in the Arctic will be the focus of our testing efforts. The species tested, and how many of each, changes yearly depending upon updates to scientific knowledge. Waterfowl testing generally focuses primarily on pintails, mallards, wigeon, green-winged teal, shovelers, wood ducks, brant, cackling geese, and snow geese. We also test shorebirds that often include dunlin and sandpipers.

Where will field sampling take place?

Testing will take place on Puget Sound and coastal estuaries where the bird species congregate most heavily, although birds in other areas of the state also will be sampled. During fall hunting seasons, sampling will take place at some hunter check stations primarily in the Puget Sound area, coastal estuaries and the Columbia and Yakima river basins.

How are the birds tested?

Live bird tests will involve temporarily capturing birds in nets and traps to collect fecal samples with a swab for laboratory testing. Similar swab samples will be taken from harvested waterfowl at check stations during fall hunts. The majority of samples collected by WDFW will be sent to a Washington State University lab in Puyallup, but some will also go to the WSU lab in Pullman. Initial test results are available within 48 hours. If a sample tests positive for an H5 or H7 strain of the virus, the sample will be sent to the national USDA lab in Iowa to identify the exact strain of the virus. Confirmation test results could take an additional two weeks.

What happens if a positive sample is found?

Because of the threat they pose to domestic poultry, highly pathogenic H5 or H7 viruses are reportable diseases, meaning that laboratories are required to report them. If the national USDA lab determines that an H5 or H7 strain of avian influenza is highly pathogenic, the lab will immediately notify federal and state officials and the findings will be announced. It is important to remember that such a finding from a wild bird sample does not mean that human health is in any immediate danger. In other countries where human avian influenza cases have occurred, people became ill after very close contact with sick or dead domestic birds.

Why are field samplers dressed in protective clothing?

In order to collect samples from live birds, samplers must handle many active wild birds and are exposed to various bodily fluids for an extended period of time. This amount of exposure differs substantially from brief contact by a hunter picking up a harvested game bird. However, hunters are routinely advised to take precautions against a variety of diseases carried by wild animals by wearing rubber gloves when handling and/or field dressing game animals; not eating, drinking or smoking while cleaning game; washing hands with soap and water or alcohol wipes immediately after handling game or cleaning bird feeders; washing tools and work surfaces used to clean game birds with soap and water, then disinfecting with a 10 percent solution of chlorine bleach; separating raw meat and anything it touches from cooked or ready-to-eat foods to avoid contamination; cooking game meat thoroughly, to an internal temperature of 155 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit; and not handling or harvesting birds that are obviously sick or found dead.

Where can I get more information on avian influenza?

For additional human health information, consult the state Department of Health's website. For information on domestic poultry, contact the state Department of Agriculture's website.