Each year, the US Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service tracks avian flu cases in its wild and domestic bird populations. So far in 2023, numbers are looking comparatively good with less than half of last year’s case rate and no outbreaks in domestic animals like chickens. But last month, biologists testing for the virus in Dillingham reported about twenty infected common murres, the second highest number of cases in Alaska after the Eastern Aleutians.
KDLG’s Christina McDermott sat down with State veterinarian Robert Gerlach to learn more about the virus, its risk to the region, and how to stay safe when hunting wild birds.
Christina McDermott: Thank you, Bob, for joining today. Starting off: what is avian flu?
Robert Gerlach: Avian influenza is a flu virus that can be spread from a number of different species of animals, not just birds, but birds are the primary carrier for the virus.
McDermott: Can people contract the virus?
Gerlach: There have been some mutations in the virus. It can be transferred, and people can be susceptible to it. It’s not a high risk. For this particular virus that’s circulating now, the H5N1, there have been just about a handful of people that have been exposed and shown to come down with the infection.
McDermott: I’ve read that there’s recently been about 20, last time I looked, cases in Dillingham in the common murre population.
Gerlach: That’s correct. It was right around the end of August when samples were collected. And it does take a while for them to ship them in to the laboratory here. We’ve got a very good collaboration with the wildlife biologists out there with both Fish and Game as well as US Fish and Wildlife. The US Fish and Wildlife biologist noted some murres that were part of a mortality event, collected the samples, and then shipped them in to us for avian influenza testing. As part of our surveillance program here, we do necropsies on those animals as well.
McDermott: You said there was a mortality event. Does that mean several deaths?
Gerlach: That means there’s a significant number. It has got to be more than five. And in this case, there were within 20, 30 birds that they had found. You have to realize that with the large area that the biologists are working in, and their ability to get around, oftentimes, we may not be seeing the entire mortality event. It’s really important that we have collaboration with the biologists as well as with the general public. If they see something that’s abnormal, report itso we can get somebody out there to go ahead and collect samples to see if influenza may be a problem.
McDermott: How serious is the situation in the Dillingham area, compared to other parts of the country?
Gerlach: When we look at what our incidence of the virus up here last year was in 2022, I think we had about 834 samples that were submitted, and [in] about 122 of those we detected avian influenza. That gave us a rate of about 15%. Just so far this year, the first nine months, we’ve got around 700 samples collected and 39 detections. So, we’re only seeing about a 6% identification of the virus in the samples that have been collected. We’re not seeing as big of an event this year as we did last year.
McDermott: Are there any possible consequences for the region, knowing that it’s in the murre population?
Gerlach: We’re still waiting for results from the USDA laboratory down in Ames, Iowa that’s doing genetic testing on the virus. What they do is not just identify that it’s an avian flu virus, and that it’s H5N1, but they also try to do genomic testing to see if they can identify if this is a strain that’s been circulating in North America, or the possibility that this may be a new introduction from Asia with the migratory birds that come across. This is important for us to try to understand to see if we’re going to see new strains coming in.
But what we do know is that the virus is still present in wild birds. That’s kind of what we expected because they’re going to go ahead and circulate that through and pass it on from one group to another. What we try to understand is, is it going to go ahead and continue to be a problem every year? Or will it lose its ability to stay in the wild bird population and just dissipate and go away?
McDermott: That’s interesting. Is there any reason in particular that we’re seeing comparatively more cases in Dillingham than other places in the state?
Gerlach: Well, that’s a great question. And I don’t know how to answer that specifically. At the same time period, we were seeing some cases that we reported on the North Slope as well as the ones that were out in the Dillingham area. It may be that the wildlife biologists there – I don’t want to say got lucky – but they were lucky enough to come upon and identify the mortality event. Maybe mortality events are happening in other areas of the state that we’re just not picking up.
McDermott: I guess my final question here. Is there anything that people living in the area should be aware of?
Gerlach: As we went through last year, when folks were especially concerned, was [the question] are wild birds safe to harvest? And the answer is, yes, they’re safe to harvest, as long as you follow the standard protocols with respect to, you don’t want to harvest sick or dead birds. If you harvest a bird and you start to clean it and find out that there are some abnormalities in there that don’t look right then report that, and there’s a recommendation not to eat birds or any animal that looks abnormal as a hunter is processing it.
McDermott: Thank you so much. This has been very, very helpful.
Gerlach: I think it’s great to get the word out so that we can continually have people report if they see something that’s not right. Oftentimes, there can be some complacency, or somebody says, ‘oh, well, we don’t need to report that.’ Please report if somebody sees something. Please report it because it really helps us to try to understand if this virus is going to go ahead and continue to be a problem or if there’s changes that may impact the bird populations.
Gerlach says the state also recommends following state guidelines for handling and cooking wild birds.He says the easiest way to report a sick or dead bird, wild or domestic, is to call the US Fish and Wildlife Office’s sick/dead bird hotline at 1-866-527-3358.