Alaska has identified its first case involving the highly pathogenic bird flu viruses that have led to the deaths of millions of birds across the Lower 48 this year.
The case in Alaska involved “a non-commercial backyard flock of chickens and ducks in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough,” the state Department of Environmental Conservation said in a statement Saturday.
Many wild bird advocates and backyard flock owners in the state have been watching the spread of avian influenza across the U.S. with concern. As of Saturday, over 35.5 million domestic poultry in 30 states have died from the virus or needed to be euthanized because of exposure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Experts said that based on migratory bird patterns, it was probably only a matter of time before the disease reached Alaska.
“With this confirmed case, it’s clear that migrating birds have brought avian influenza to Alaska this spring,” said Dr. Robert Gerlach, the state veterinarian.
While the risk to human health is low, Gerlach has said that avian influenza could pose a threat to not only the state’s domestic birds but also wild birds, including geese, shore birds, vultures and eagles. There’s no treatment for birds that are infected, and the mortality rate for poultry and raptors like hawks, eagles or owls is especially high.
Gerlach’s office is working with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to respond to the avian flu case, state officials said. The Department of Environmental Conservation urged flock owners to take precautions like keeping their birds out of contact with wild birds and avoiding virus transmission through clothing, shoes or tools.
“We are relying on flock owners to keep an eye on their animals for signs of illness, and to report any possible cases of avian influenza promptly to their own veterinarian or to our office,” Gerlach said.
Concerning indicators include the “sudden death of multiple birds in the flock, nasal discharge, sneezing, and coughing, or respiratory distress,” state officials said, adding: “Other signs include a significant drop in water consumption, diarrhea, lethargy, abnormal behavior or difficulty walking, blue discoloration of the comb and wattles or a swollen comb, wattles, legs, or head.”
The environmental conservation department said residents can report suspected avian flu cases, whether in wild birds or their own animals, to Gerlach at 907-375-8215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.