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Bird flu outbreak stokes fears for Washington’s wild birds

Washington, (Qnnflash) – An emerging strain of avian flu, H5N1, which has primarily impacted poultry in the past, is proving to be a lethal threat to wild birds as well. This concerning development has led to the deaths of over 75,000 wild birds worldwide. While human infection remains rare, experts caution against underestimating the potential risks.

The appearance of H5N1 in Washington last March marked the beginning of an escalating trend of cases among wild birds in the state. Despite this increase, officials are grappling with the challenge of comprehending the full extent of the impact.

Katie Haman, a wildlife veterinarian at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, conveyed the difficulties in quantifying the repercussions in Washington. “The impacts in Washington have been hard to quantify. How many cases are we missing? We just don’t know,” Haman told the state Fish and Wildlife Commission recently.

The first instance of the H5N1 strain in Washington was identified on March 1, 2022, affecting a greater white-fronted goose in Walla Walla County. Since then, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has confirmed 112 cases in the state, although this number is believed to be an incomplete representation.

A significant outbreak is under close observation on Rat Island, a small island near Port Townsend in Puget Sound. The wildlife preserve on the island has been closed to the public due to the outbreak. The Department of Fish and Wildlife has recorded a substantial number of Caspian tern and gull carcasses on Rat Island since July 1, raising concerns about the potential long-term consequences of this occurrence.

Haman noted that the Rat Island event is the first H5N1 incident in a marine environment in Washington. The department has allocated substantial resources to address this situation, driven in part by fears that the disease could spread to other marine animals, such as seals. Instances of H5N1 affecting sea lions in Peru and causing seal deaths in Maine underscore the potential threat.

Despite the worrisome developments, confirmed cases of the disease among marine mammals in Washington have not yet emerged. Haman stated that testing has only confirmed positive results among raccoons and bobcats.

The prospect of H5N1 transmission to humans remains a grave concern. The mortality rate for humans infected with this virus can exceed 50%. Additionally, if avian flu were to combine with human flu, the conditions for a pandemic could be set, similar to the scenario that led to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

Looking ahead, the Department of Fish and Wildlife is committed to tracking the spread of the disease. The department has secured temporary funding for the next two years to sustain surveillance efforts and is expected to request further financial support from the Legislature.

Preventive measures to safeguard birds and other animals are limited, particularly as the H5N1 vaccine is not widely available for wildlife. The state’s focus will remain on collecting data to better understand the disease’s trajectory and modes of transmission.

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