Wildlife Watch: Avian influenza

Published: May. 24, 2022 at 4:02 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The first official cases of bird flu in Vermont started showing up last month after two bald eagles were found dead in Grand Isle and Chittenden Counties. Since then, there has been an outbreak in a backyard chicken flock in Caledonia County. Our Ike Bendavid spoke with Vermont officials about the disease in both wild and domesticated birds.

David Sausville with Vermont Fish & Wildlife says the state is seeing these cases of avian influenza as birds are migrating through the region.

“It’s a virus that is naturally found in many bird species and predominantly has been found within waterfowl and shorebirds, but it can affect any bird that is out there. And there are also different variants. Just like any virus, it can mutate, and we have both highly pathogenic and low pathogenic and the highly pathogenic version of it affects domestic poultry more than the low path does,” Sausville said.

He says the virus has been around for years progressing across Asia and Europe, making its first appearance in Vermont seven years ago. “We had an outbreak and then it disappeared for a couple of years and the virus is back in circulation, a little bit different variant,” Sausville said. He says the amount of cases currently is unknown but it’s been found all around the state. “You can assume any bird is capable of carrying it and once we find that it’s positive in a county, we haven’t been sampling those birds again, just because of lab capacity and the cost of the test. We know it’s there and there’s no reason to continue testing in that area.”

Sausville says it’s still unclear how the disease is going to affect populations. “Many birds, you know, that’s why they have anywhere from six to a dozen eggs. We know a lot of them are going to die each year from various diseases and predation and other things that kill a bird. So, at this time, it’s kind of a wait,” he said.

But there is a concern for poultry. “We are hoping to continue to work with poultry owners within the state to become aware of any sick or dying poultry that owners are finding. And it’s important for those instances to be reported to us so that we can follow up and try and hopefully rule out,” said Vermont state veterinarian Kristin Haas. She says the state is only aware of the one Caledonia County outbreak but that there could be bigger impacts. “Depending on the types of flocks that are infected, there can be the need to implement poultry movement restrictions and take other measures to try and prevent the spread of disease and then also on our larger scale. This is because this avian influenza is considered a foreign animal disease. It’s reportable through international channels to our U.S. trading partners and so if there is a widespread enough outbreak, then there can be implications for domestic exports of poultry and poultry products to other countries and that can compound the economic impact of a disease outbreak like this.”

Reporter Ike Bendavid: Is there a way to prevent this? Obviously, birds can’t wear masks or social distance, so how can we prevent this?

David Sausville: Well, I think the biggest way you can help around your own dwellings is not to attract birds to a single source of food, something like a bird feeder or a hummingbird feeder. That’s one way that birds get the contact. You know, saliva and blood and feces get mixed in, they get exposed to it. But in the wild, really there’s no way to prevent them from being exposed to it, especially some of our raptors that feed on waterfowl that have died when they feed on the bird that’s infected. They do take up the virus and oftentimes catch it... At this time, we don’t have concerns for the populations at a statewide or even nationally, because our birds migrate through. Most of the birds are not resident birds and so we share these with Canada and down into the southern states and even the tropics.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: So the goal is kind of to let it just run its course and kind of hope it goes away?

David Sausville: We’re hoping the heat makes the virus go away during the summertime, as in the past, and hopefully it only goes through one cycle. The last couple of times that avian influenza has really shown up in the United States, it’s gone through one migratory cycle and then has died off. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a couple of cycles happen over in Europe at this time, so we’re gonna have to take a little bit of a wait and see.

State officials say avian influenza is highly unlikely to impact humans. “Currently, the CDC and therefore the Vermont Department of Health describe this virus as being a very low risk to people. So, what we’re talking about here is far and away, primarily the type of influenza that impacts different species of birds, and that’s the biggest concern,” Hass said.

Related Stories:

Bird flu concerns after outbreak found in Caledonia County

Deadly strain of avian flu found in Vermont

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