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Avian Influenza

What is H5N1 avian influenza?

Low pathogenic avian influenza, or so called "bird flu," is common in certain wild bird populations especially waterfowl and shorebirds, but generally does not cause obvious signs of infection. The different strains of avian influenza are classified into various groups with 16 "H" and 9 "N" recognized subtypes. The virus is largely spread through discharges from the nose and mouth, and feces (stool). Few bird viruses are able to infect humans, but influenza viruses are able to adapt and change over time. In 1997, a variety of highly pathogenic Eurasian H5N1 virus in Hong Kong was able to spread directly from birds to humans.

Since 2003, this virulent strain of Eurasian H5N1 - a Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) - began to spread across Southeast Asia in domestic poultry. Although large numbers of poultry were destroyed to stop the virus, it reached China and Korea by early 2005. Outbreaks have now been reported in Siberia and Kazakhstan, Europe, and Africa.

Can people get avian influenza?

People can get Eurasian H5N1 avian influenza; however, all H5N1 infections in humans resulted from close contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces. These viruses do not move easily to humans, and there are no confirmed cases of human infection from wild birds. Since December 2003, over 310 human cases of H5N1 avian influenza and approximately 188 deaths have been reported as of June 2007.

Do we have Eurasian H5N1 avian influenza here in Virginia?

As of June 2007, Eurasian H5N1 avian influenza has not been found in North America; there are no records of positive tests in wild or domestic birds, and no known human cases of illness.

What is being done about avian influenza in Virginia?

The Department conducted surveillance for H5N1 avian influenza between July 2006 and March 2007. 913 birds were tested for this virus and no highly pathogenic avian influenza strains were detected. This surveillance effort was part of a national coordinated program in which more than 147,849 birds were tested in every U.S. state and Canadian province. To date, the highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 avian influenza has not been found in North America.

The national surveillance strategy; The U.S. Interagency Strategic Plan: An Early Detection System for Asian H5N1 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in Wild Migratory Birds, was developed by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Interior. VDGIF, working cooperatively with the Virginia office of the USDA Wildlife Services, collected 913 samples from waterfowl in Virginia to detect, as early as possible, the unlikely introduction of the Asian strain of H5N1 avian influenza into North America by migratory wild birds. Samples were collected from live-trapped and hunter-harvested birds, during mortality events as well as opportunistically during other Department management activities. Species sampled were selected based on their potential to migrate from Alaska or the Greenland/Northeastern corridor, their potential to be in contact with species that migrate from these areas, or were considered a sentinel species due to their high susceptibility to H5N1 avian influenza.

The five principal species sampled, and number of samples for each species, were: 212 Mallards, 206 Atlantic Brant, 214 Mute Swans, 76 Greater Snow Geese and 90 Tundra Swans. VDGIF also sampled 40 Canada Geese, 18 Hooded Mergansers, 13 Bufflehead, 14 Red-breasted Mergansers, 9 American Black Ducks, 6 Gadwall, 4 Northern Shovelers, 4 American Green-winged Teal, 2 White-winged Scoters, 2 Ring-Necked Ducks, 1 Lesser Scaup, 1 Domestic Duck, and 1 Brown Pelican.

The Department will continue with avian influenza surveillance during 2007-2008. Samples will be collected from live-trapped and hunter harvested birds. Hunters should contact the nearest Department office to see how they can assist with the surveillance effort. We will also be investigating unusual sickness and death in waterfowl and shorebirds. (See "What should I do if I see a group of dead birds?")

Please note that persons wishing to import game birds, including pheasants, partridges, quail and chukar, and waterfowl including eggs from these species must comply with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' AI Proclamation (PDF).

Avian Influenza Suveillance and Response Plan

More details about the Department's Avian Influenza Surveillance and Response Plan for 2006 can be found on this Web site. The 2007 Surveillance Plan is also available here.

Why is there such concern about avian influenza?

Public health and medical officials worldwide are concerned because influenza viruses are constantly changing form, and new strains of flu develop each year. Some influenza strains can jump from birds to mammals, and to humans. Several global flu pandemics have occurred in the past, and if a new avian flu strain acquired the ability to spread from person to person, it would cause a widespread health crisis.

Can humans catch avian influenza from wild birds?

There are no confirmed cases where avian influenza has been passed from wild birds to humans, but direct transmission from wild birds to humans is theoretically possible. It is possible that some human cases resulted from the de-feathering of dead swans in Azerbaijan.

How could H5N1 avian influenza arrive in North America?

Migratory birds, particularly waterfowl and shorebirds, cross the Bering Sea between Alaska and Asia during their seasonal cycles of breeding, molting and wintering, and scientists are concerned that this may be a route for introduction of the virus. However, this is thought to be unlikely. H5N1 avian influenza could also be transported by people who are infected, or through virus-contaminated items or illegally imported birds or bird products.

How concerned should bird hunters be about H5N1 avian influenza?

Hunters should not be overly concerned about H5N1 avian influenza at this time, but should take common sense precautions about hunting hygiene. There are no confirmed cases of human H5N1 avian influenza infection from wild birds; and it is not clear whether H5N1 avian influenza stays in wild bird populations or whether wild birds pose a long-term risk.

How can I protect myself from H5N1 avian influenza and other diseases while hunting?

There are no known cases where H5N1 avian influenza has been transmitted from wild birds to humans. However, even apparently healthy wild birds can be infected with other infectious organisms that can move between wildlife and people. Therefore, it is always good practice to wear some basic protection, and keep tools and work surfaces clean when preparing game animals.

Viruses like H5N1 avian influenza are shed from birds in body fluids and feces, so avoiding contact with these materials while plucking and cleaning birds is good practice. Most viruses do not persist very long after they have left their host and can be killed with heat, drying, and disinfectants.

Hunters should also take the following hygienic precautions:

  • Do not handle birds that are obviously sick or birds found dead.
  • Keep your game birds cool, clean and dry.
  • Do not eat, drink, or smoke while cleaning your birds.
  • Use rubber gloves when cleaning game.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water or alcohol wipes after dressing birds.
  • Clean all tools and surfaces immediately afterward; use hot soapy water, then disinfect with a 10% chlorine bleach solution.
  • Cook game meat thoroughly (155-165° F) to kill disease organisms and parasites.

Can I get avian influenza from eating wild game birds?

Avian influenza is not transmitted through cooked food. To date there is no evidence that anyone has become infected after consuming properly cooked foods.

What should I do if I see a group of dead birds?

We are especially interested in hearing about unusual sickness and death in waterfowl and shorebirds, as well as large die-offs (greater than 5 individuals) of other species. If the dead bird is a single, small garden, or song bird then you do not need to call the Department. You should either leave it alone or follow the guidelines below for disposal.

Please do not pick up the birds! You should accurately document the location of the birds and immediately contact the Department at (804) 367-1258 or the office listed below that is nearest to you. Arrangements will be made to investigate the report. Offices are located at Blacksburg (540) 961-8304, Farmville (434) 392-9645, Fredericksburg (540) 899-4169, Lynchburg (434) 525-7522, Marion (276) 783-4860, Verona (540) 248-9360, and Charles City (804) 829-6580.

To dispose of dead bird(s), handle the bird(s) with disposable gloves or a shovel to maintain a barrier, and place the bird in a trash bag or double shopping bag and tie off. The bird may then be placed in the garbage bin. Alternatively, the bird(s) may be buried but not in a plastic bag or cover. Wash your hands with warm water and soap, and clean the shovel with 10% bleach.

What should I do if I suspect I have flu?

Please contact your physician or the nearest local health department.

Resources for More Information

Adapted from similar fact sheet produced by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.