Highly-pathogenic strain not yet found in North America; risk to hunters extremely low
PRATT -- With the start of hunting seasons, bird hunters may be concerned about avian influenza, commonly known as “bird flu." Birds have long been susceptible to bird flu, but the latest strain -- highly-pathogenic H5N1 -- has killed more than 200 million domestic birds and sickened 241 people worldwide. Since 2003, 141 people have died from H5N1.

This summer and fall, state and federal agencies, universities, and non-governmental organizations will be testing 75,000-100,000 wild birds for H5N1 throughout the U.S. As part of this survey, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP) will collect samples from 750 migratory birds, including shorebirds, ducks, geese, and sandhill cranes. Hunters should be aware that KDWP employees may ask to sample any waterfowl or sandhill cranes in their bags.

So far, highly-pathogenic H5N1 has been detected in Asia, Europe, and Africa but not in North America. Of these, far more domestic birds than wild birds have died as a result of highly-pathogenic H5N1. During extensive surveillance of wild birds in Europe, H5N1 was detected only in dead birds. Although a low-pathogenic strain of H5N1 was isolated in a healthy mute swan in Michigan this year, experts say that this form of H5N1 is not a threat to humans.

Humans have contracted highly-pathogenic H5N1 primarily through close contact with sick or dead birds, nearly all domestic birds. There have been only seven cases, all in the Eurasian country of Azerbaijan, of humans acquiring H5N1 directly from wild birds. These people contracted H5N1 after plucking feathers from swans that died in an H5N1 die-off.

Until highly-pathogenic H5N1 is detected in North America, experts believe the risk to hunters is extremely low. Nevertheless, the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) National Wildlife Health Center recommends that hunters should follow these common-sense precautions when handling wild game birds:

  • do not handle or eat sick game;
  • wear rubber or disposable latex gloves while handling and cleaning game;
  • wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling game and thoroughly clean knives, equipment, and surfaces that come in contact with game;
  • do not eat, drink, or smoke while handling animals; and
  • thoroughly cook all game (well done or 160 degrees F).

Additionally, the USGS National Wildlife Health Center provides the following common-sense precautions for the general public:

  • observe wildlife, including wild birds, from a distance;
  • avoid touching wildlife, but if wildlife is contacted, do not rub eyes, eat, drink, or smoke before washing hands thoroughly with soap and water; and
  • do not pick up diseased or dead wildlife.

Discovery of sick or dead wildlife is no reason to panic. Not all sick or dead animals carry H5N1. Wild birds and animals routinely die of accidents, predation, and diseases that have been around for decades. However, anyone finding a large number of dead or sick birds (five or more) should phone the nearest KDWP office.

If highly-pathogenic H5N1 is detected in North America, precautions for hunters and the general public could change. Check KDWP’s bird flu web page or the USGS National Wildlife Health Center’s bird flu web page for updated information on avian influenza.