By Steve Guntli
State health officials have identified a third strain of avian flu in Whatcom County.
On January 23, officials from the Washington State Department of Agriculture confirmed that a strain of H5N1 was found in a wild duck near Sumas. The strain is similar to the other two strains, H5N8 and H5N2, that have been found in Whatcom County since December. All three are highly pathogenic and potentially fatal to domestic poultry, but pose little to no risk to humans.
H5N1 shares a name with a flu strain that infected 650 people in Asia in 2003, killing 60 percent of those infected. Officials from the state department of health (DOH) say while the names of the strains are the same, the genetic makeup of the one found in Whatcom County is quite different from the Asian strain and poses very little risk to humans.
“This new strain is actually very similar to the ones already found in Whatcom County, and it probably mutated from those, but it’s nothing like the strain from Asia,” said DOH spokesman Donn Moyer. “There’s never zero concern with bird flu. There can be risks if people are handling sick birds every day, but even for them the risk is very low.”
So far the disease has not affected any backyard flocks in Whatcom County. Cases of avian flu have been found in domestic birds in other areas of Washington, Idaho and Oregon, as well as the Fraser Valley in southern B.C.
The latest strain was discovered in a green-winged teal duck shot by a hunter outside of Sumas. The other two were found in a dead pintail duck, which died from a fungal infection but was a carrier for the disease, and a captive gyrfalcon that was fed chunks of wild duck.
State and county officials have been diligent in testing for the disease since it was first discovered in Whatcom County in December. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has asked hunters to submit any killed birds for testing, and is asking anyone who comes across a sick or dead bird to contact the department immediately.
Officials are encouraging poultry owners to keep their flocks separated from wild water foul. Wild ducks and geese are potential carriers for the flu, but don’t show any symptoms.
To report any dead or dying birds, call the Washington State Department of Agriculture at 800/606-3056.