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BC scientists on alert after potentially deadly avian flu discovered in Washington seals

An outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus, specifically H5N1, has infected seals in Washington State, raising concerns among scientists in British Columbia (BC).

This marks the first case of HPAI in seals on North America’s West Coast. While the virus has not been detected in BC birds or marine mammals so far, experts are monitoring the situation closely.

Martin Haulena, head veterinarian and director of animal health at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, emphasized the importance of surveying animals for diseases that can affect both wildlife populations and humans. He noted that most marine mammals can carry avian flu without showing signs of infection, but some may become ill or die from subsequent diseases.

The outbreak in Washington State was first identified when the H5N1 virus killed approximately 1,700 gulls near Port Townsend and later infected three harbour seals. A similar virus outbreak in Peru earlier this year led to the deaths of more than 3,500 sea lions.

The proximity of the affected areas in Washington State to Vancouver Island has heightened concerns about potential transmission. Authorities are taking precautions to prevent further spread.

HPAI is considered a “zoonotic disease,” meaning it can be transmitted between animals and humans. While the risk of infection for the general public remains low, people in affected regions are advised to avoid contact with wild birds and other animals, particularly sick or dead specimens and their offspring.

Researchers are actively studying the virus to better understand how it affects seals and sea lions. Despite the presence of avian influenza in marine mammal populations on the East Coast since the late 1970s, the disease’s impact on these species at a population level remains under investigation.

The collaborative efforts of various agencies are crucial in managing infectious diseases in wildlife populations and preventing potential cross-species transmission, as highlighted by Kristin Wilkinson, NOAA Fisheries’ Regional Stranding and Entanglement Coordinator. Monitoring and research will continue as scientists work to address this complex situation.

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