Oregon officials expect avian flu cases to rise later this year as a dangerous strain of the virus spreads across the country.
Oregon Department of Agriculture State Veterinarian Ryan Scholz said the current strain of avian flu, Eurasian H5N1, is having devastating effects on birds along the East Coast because it’s highly pathogenic, meaning contagious and potentially deadly.
Scholz said with other strains of bird flu, the infected birds usually recover.
“While avian influenza are common in our wild waterfowls, most of the time what we see are low pathogenicity,” he said during an interview on OPB’s Think Out Loud on Thursday. “It makes them sick, gives them the sniffles and then they get over it. But these [highly pathogenic] strains don’t follow that same playbook.”
The avian flu or bird flu is a virus that affects wild aquatic birds like ducks, geese, and swans, and it’s mostly spread through bird droppings. Some strains are more deadly than others and are particularly dangerous for domestic poultry.
Chicken and turkey farms have been on high alert across the U.S. as cases of the virus in domesticated birds have led to nearly 23 million chickens and turkeys in poultry farms being killed to limit the spread of the virus.
Zoos are also taking precautions. They’re moving birds indoors and away from people and other wildlife to prevent the spread of the disease. A spokesperson for the Oregon Zoo said staff members are keeping a close watch and are taking precautionary measures such as asking people not to feed wild birds on zoo grounds.
Last month, a bald eagle that was found dead in British Columbia tested positive for another strain of avian influenza. It was the first detection in North America’s Pacific Flyway since 2015.
But Scholz said the West Coast isn’t on high alert just yet. He said the bald eagle was infected with a different strain from the one that’s spreading on the East Coast.
“The biggest thing to remember is migratory waterfowl fly north to south, so we weren’t really worried about a bird flying from Georgia to Oregon,” he said.
There are four flyways, or routes migratory birds use, during the summer and winter, and that can create overlap where the disease can spread, Scholz said. Overlap can also happen with European and Asian flyways, and that is another way the disease can be introduced to the Northwest.
Scholz said to limit the spread, poultry farmers and people who own their own backyard chicken coops must be vigilant. He recommended building fences so wild birds like ducks and geese don’t interact with domestic birds and wiping down shoes and clothing before coming home after visiting a park where wild waterfowl frequent. Bird owners should also report sick birds to the Oregon Department of Agriculture or a local veterinary clinic. The public can also call the state veterinarian at 503-986-4711.
According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, there are five commercial poultry producers operating in the state, and there are 40 farms associated with those producers. The industry is worth nearly $16 million.
In Oregon, Scholtz said the worst case scenario for poultry farms would be chickens getting infected with the virus and forcing farmers to kill the whole flock. Individuals with their own chickens could face the same outcome.
“I think that’s just as big of a risk to an individual who has five chickens as one that has 50,000 chickens,” he said. “Those chickens in a lot of cases are their pets, we don’t want to see those birds get sick and die from this disease.”
Scholz said he hopes the region can avoid seeing any infections this spring but expects cases to rise in the fall.