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Avian flu could be spread to Hawaiʻi by long migratory birds, wildlife veterinarian says

FILE - Turkeys stand in a barn on a turkey farm near Manson, Iowa on Aug. 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
Charlie Neibergall/AP
FILE - Turkeys stand in a barn on a turkey farm near Manson, Iowa on Aug. 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned about new cases of a highly pathogenic strain of avian flu detected this week in wild birds in Alaska.

Previously, Alaska only had confirmed cases in poultry. Thirty-four other states have also detected the virus in both wild birds and poultry populations.

Wildlife veterinarian Samantha Gibbs says cases have been confirmed in 63 species of wild birds in the 48 continental states.

Gibbs says there’s a possibility the virus could be spread by long migratory birds, like Hawaiʻi’s kōlea, or Pacific golden plover, which spends its summers in Alaska. A Kōlea generally returns to Hawaiʻi by the end of August.

"We are concerned that many of these birds could carry the virus, but we're less concerned that it would impact their health. But the rules are out the window at the moment, because the impact the highly pathogenic avian influenza is having on our wild bird species in the lower 48 is much greater than we've seen in the past. So this virus, in particular, seems to be a little less predictable," Gibbs said.

Gibbs says an interagency committee is monitoring wild bird populations for avian flu and compiling data so that places like Hawaiʻi can receive an early warning about the potential for infections.

"Part of it is sending folks out in the field deliberately to perform surveillance and some of it is what we call 'passive surveillance,' with people in the field notice that there are sick or dead birds — and submit those for testing," she told HPR.

The CDC says the risk of the virus jumping species and infecting the general public is low.

In April, a man in Colorado was the first human in the U.S. to test positive for bird flu, NPR reports. The patient, who is younger than 40, was involved in the culling of presumptively infected poultry at a commercial farm, according to Colorado officials.

Still, for the general public, the human risk of bird flu remains low, the CDC says.

If you come across a sick or deceased bird, Gibbs says your first contact should be the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources.

This interview aired on The Conversation on May 17, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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