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Wash your hands: Highly contagious bird flu reaches Michigan wild flocks

Canada geese
Government officials say the highly-contagious H5N1 Avian flu has appeared in wild Canada geese and tundra swans in St. Clair County, snowy owls in Macomb County and a mute swan in Monroe County. (Shutterstock)

A highly contagious, potentially deadly bird flu that is spreading around the world and across the nation has reached Michigan’s wild flocks.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources announced this week that the H5N1 subtype of Avian influenza, or “bird flu” has been detected in wild birds in three southeast Michigan counties.

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State officials said the risk to humans is low, but they are concerned about future spread and are taking steps to contain the disease among Michigan’s birds.

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“It is important to remember that it's a zoonotic disease, so it can be spread between wild animals and people,” said Dr. Megan Moriarty, a wildlife veterinary specialist for the DNR, in an interview with Bridge. “So it's still good for people to take precautions.”

Avoid handling sick or dead birds, wash your hands, and keep your distance, Moriarty said. 

The positive cases came from Canada geese and tundra swans in St. Clair County, snowy owls in Macomb County and a mute swan in Monroe County. 

Officials first detected the virus in a Kalamazoo County domestic poultry flock in February. Domesticated flocks typically contract the disease from wild birds that can more easily move from place to place.

State agriculture regulators are urging poultry owners to protect their flocks by isolating their birds from humans and wild birds, and disinfecting their hands and clothing after interacting with their flocks.

The virus has infected wild birds in at least 25 states so far this year. Officials expect those numbers to rise as testing continues.

Since 2003, the World Health Organization has taken in reports of more than 860 human H5N1 infections, with a 53 percent death rate among them. But experts note that many cases are asymptomatic, and the current wave poses a low risk to humans.

Still, “it’s a pretty dangerous disease,” Moriarty said. “People need to remain vigilant.”

Only one person — a poultry owner in the United Kingdom — has recently contracted a documented infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The patient had no symptoms.

The U.S. remains free of documented human cases. The CDC notes that properly handled and cooked poultry remains safe to eat. 

Birds shed the virus through their saliva and waste, and humans can contract it through their eyes, nose, mouth or inhalation. Typical patients are people who have been in close unprotected contact with infected birds.

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Fears of spreading avian flu have prompted the DNR to cancel an annual Canada goose roundup that’s meant to deal with nuisance geese. Instead of collecting geese and relocating them, the agency is refunding the money of people and groups who paid for roundup permits, and instead advising them to destroy nest eggs if they’re having problems with geese.

Birds sick with the disease can die suddenly, sometimes with little prior evidence of illness. But birds sometimes show signs, from listlessness to difficulty walking or eating, diarrhea or runny beak, and decreased egg production. 

The DNR is asking residents to report groups of dead wild birds, and call MDARD at 800-292-3939 to report sick or dying poultry.

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