Third strain of bird flu confirmed in wild duck in Whatcom County

A third strain of bird flu has been found in a wild duck in Whatcom County, officials said Friday, Jan. 23.

Tests confirmed the H5N1 strain in a green-winged teal killed by a hunter near Sumas, said Hector Castro, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.

Like the other two strains traced to wild ducks in Whatcom County in December, this one also is highly pathogenic. That means the strain is deadly to domestic chickens and turkeys.

This strain bears the same name as one that has infected 650 people in 15 different countries, mostly in Asia, since 2003, killing about 60 percent of them. Most of those infections occurred in people who had close contact with domestic poultry, and none of them occurred in the U.S.

Although the most recent strain found in Whatcom County is also named H5N1, it’s not considered dangerous to the general public because it’s not the same virus, officials said.

“The actual genetic makeup is way different,” than the Asian strain, said Donn Moyer, spokesman for the Washington state Department of Health. “This one is not alarming in that way because it’s similar to the ones (in Whatcom County) that haven’t caused illnesses.”

Testing was stepped up in Whatcom County after Canadian inspectors first confirmed the highly pathogenic H5N2 strain at two British Columbia poultry farms in the first week of December and subsequent sampling found the flu in wild ducks in Whatcom County.

As for the previous two cases in Whatcom County: One was a northern pintail duck, which died because of aspergillosis, a fungal disease that birds can contract from eating moldy grain in fields and farm yards. But the duck also carried a strain of bird flu similar to the one that caused the outbreak in B.C.

The other case here was a captive gyrfalcon used for hunting; it was fed a wild widgeon, a type of duck, by its owner. Testing showed an H5N8 strain of the virus in the gyrfalcon. The bird was one of four captive gyrfalcons fed the widgeon. All died afterward, but just one was tested.

Both the wild pintail and widgeon were traced to the Wiser Lake area.

Officials have said all three strains aren’t dangerous to the general public because none has infected a human being. Still, they advised those who have backyard flocks, for example, to use caution.

“It’s not a zero risk, but it’s not a major public health risk or threat,” Moyer said.

Wild birds, specifically waterfowl, carry the flu but don’t show symptoms. And officials continue to stress that bird flu hasn’t been found in commercial poultry in the U.S.

Meanwhile, agriculture officials continue to ask poultry owners in Whatcom County to have their birds tested. The voluntary testing of domesticated birds is meant to prevent highly pathogenic bird flu from taking hold in the county and spreading. Poultry owners can do so by calling 800-606-3056. It’s also the number to report domestic birds that are sick or dead.

No backyard flocks have been found to be infected with bird flu in Whatcom County, but cases have been found in backyard flocks in Clallam and Benton counties in Washington state as well as in Oregon and Idaho.

Poultry owners are being told to keep their birds separated from wild waterfowl.

Learn more by emailing ahealth@agr.wa.gov or calling the Avian Health hotline at 800-606-3056.

People can report sick or dead wild birds can be reported by calling 1-800-606-8768.