May 7, 2024 - News

Bird flu found in WA skunks, raccoons and bobcats

A map of the United States shows counties where avian flu has been detected in wild mammals. The disease is widespread, particularly across New England, the upper midwest, Colorado and the Pacific northwest. It's been prevalent in red foxes but has also been found in a dolphin in Florida and a polar bear in Alaska.
Data: USDA; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Washington is among the states with wild animals that have contracted the highly pathogenic bird flu, including a bobcat in King County, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Why it matters: The bird flu outbreak in dairy cattle that's swept across nine states and has infected at least one person is posing perplexing questions about how the virus is spreading between animals and the risk it poses to humans.

Driving the news: Originally found mainly in wild birds and backyard flocks, the H5N1 virus was detected in dairy cows in the U.S. on March 25, in commercial egg-layer flocks in April and in about 20 wild mammal species across the country as of May, per the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

Zoom in: The current version of the avian flu has been circulating since 2020 and was first reported in Washington in birds two years ago.

  • Since then, it has been detected in mammals in six counties, including raccoons in Franklin and Island counties and harbor seals in Jefferson County.
  • In March, it was detected in skunks in Stevens County and a bobcat in King, per APHIS.

Threat level: Experts say people are unlikely to be infected from eating beef, dairy or eggs.

  • The H5N1 virus was believed less likely to cause infection in humans because it attaches to certain receptors in the airways of birds that humans don't share, said Helen Chu, an infectious disease specialist with UW Medicine.
  • But the jump to cows and other animals is raising new questions and concerns, said Jürgen Richt, the director of Kansas State University's Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases.

Go deeper: The virus was present in the commercial milk supply prior to pasteurization, but was inactivated by the process and thus far, no live virus has been detected in any commercial milk samples, Meg Schaeffer, epidemiologist at data analytics firm SAS and author of a zoonotic influenza guide, told Axios.

  • Beef and chicken are safe to eat as long as they are thoroughly cooked, per Schaeffer.
  • The risk of human contraction of the virus is low and still requires significant human contact with infected animals, their infected byproducts or surfaces, Schaeffer said.
  • Raw milk and cheese products should be avoided, however, per Schaeffer.

The intrigue: Washington state is susceptible to continued outbreaks of avian influenza because of its location within the Pacific Flyway, with migratory birds bringing viruses to domestic poultry populations, Schaeffer said.

What we're watching: Up to 75% of new and emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals, and most of those can be traced back to wildlife.

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