The spread of bird flu has left Washington wildlife officials scrambling to test suspected cases and cleaning up hundreds of tern and gull carcasses along the coast of an island in northern Puget Sound.
Avian flu has historically affected mostly poultry, but a new strain – H5N1 – is proving deadly for wild birds as well. More than 75,000 wild birds globally have died because of the strain. Though human infection is rare, it’s not impossible.
Since the disease first came to Washington last March, cases in wild birds have been increasing in the state. But officials say they are still trying to gauge the full effects.
“The impacts in Washington have been hard to quantify,” Katie Haman, wildlife veterinarian at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the state Fish and Wildlife Commission last week. “How many cases are we missing? We just don’t know.”
In Washington, the first case of the H5N1 strain was reported on March 1, 2022 in a greater white-fronted goose in Walla Walla County.
So far, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has confirmed 112 cases in Washington, but Haman said that number is likely incomplete.
One outbreak that wildlife officials are monitoring is on Rat Island, a small island in Puget Sound, near Port Townsend. The wildlife preserve on the island is currently closed to the public due to the outbreak.
Since July 1, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has collected more than 1,224 dead Caspian tern carcasses – most of which are adults – and more than 158 dead gull carcasses – most of which are chicks.
The long-term impacts of the Rat Island outbreak are “unknown,” Haman said. “I think time will tell.”
The rash of cases on the island is the first H5N1 event in a marine environment in Washington, Haman said. The department has devoted a lot of resources to cleaning it up, in part because of a fear that the disease could spread to other animals, like seals.
But so far in Washington, there are no confirmed cases in marine mammals, Haman said. The department has tested various mammals in Washington, and so far only raccoons and bobcats have tested positive.
If the disease does jump to humans, the mortality rate can be more than 50%. And if bird flu and human flu combine, it could trigger a pandemic. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was caused by a similar scenario.
Moving forward, the department will continue to track the spread of the disease. The department did receive one-time funding for the next two years to keep up surveillance efforts and will likely ask the Legislature for more funding.
There aren’t many preventative steps that can protect birds and other animals, Haman said, especially as the H5N1 vaccine isn’t widely available for wildlife.
For now, she said state officials will continue to collect data on where and how the disease is spreading.
“Unfortunately, H5N1 does not seem to be going away,” she said.
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