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Avian influenza outbreak spreads to Tampa Bay, is killing Florida birds

The virus can be deadly for birds, but experts say this strain does not appear to threaten people.
A bald eagle flies after being released in August 2018 at Upper Tampa Bay in Hillsborough County.
A bald eagle flies after being released in August 2018 at Upper Tampa Bay in Hillsborough County. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Apr. 26|Updated Apr. 26

A deadly strain of avian influenza sickening Florida birds has reached the Tampa Bay area but does not appear to pose a threat to people, according to state wildlife officials.

The virus has killed countless birds, including bald eagles, ducks and black vultures, said Mark Cunningham, a wildlife health veterinarian for the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Migrating birds likely spread the illness out of Europe and through North America.

“We’ve never had it in Florida that we’re aware of,” Cunningham said. “This year — February, March, April — it’s killed a lot of wild birds.”

Related: Deadly avian flu strain found in Florida’s wild birds, state says

There is no way to tally the full death toll. Many birds die without being found.

The first case in Florida surfaced in January, after a hunter brought in a blue-winged teal from Palm Beach County. Cunningham said one of the first species widely affected was lesser scaup, a type of duck. Thousands have since died — though avian influenza is not always lethal.

Pinellas and Hillsborough had confirmed cases as of Monday.

Many diseases pass between animals and people, a threat that scientists say is growing as humans move into formerly wild spaces. But this strain of avian influenza is “a very low risk to humans at this point,” said Andrew Bowman, a veterinary medicine professor at Ohio State University.

It turned up in Europe in late 2020 then spread across the world, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In that time, the agency says, just one person in the United Kingdom was confirmed to have a human infection, but they did not show symptoms.

Still, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recommends that people not touch sick or dead birds, wear gloves while disinfecting feeders and keep their backyard flocks away from wild birds that could be carrying avian influenza.

So far, the state says, the virus is only known to have sickened wild birds in Florida.

Ill birds may show signs of respiratory trouble, like coughing or sneezing. They could also exhibit more severe symptoms, including bleeding under the skin and diarrhea, said Yvette Johnson-Walker, a lecturer at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

“It’s kind of a multi-organ system failure,” she said.

Avian influenza can pass from bird to bird, or through their spit and feces. Songbirds are at low risk of becoming ill, the Conservation Commission says. But others including gulls, sandpipers, eagles, hawks and crows may be more susceptible.

An avian influenza flare-up between 2014 and 2015 directly killed or caused the deaths of more than 50 million turkeys and chickens — a blow to the poultry industry in the upper Midwest, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The latest outbreak has affected more than 31 million birds from commercial and backyard flocks, largely chickens, the agency reports.

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The meat and egg industries keep checks in place to pull sick chickens from the food supply, Johnson-Walker said, so consumers shouldn’t worry too much. But mass death or euthanasia to prevent further spread could reduce poultry stocks, leading to a spike in grocery prices.

The 2015 bird flu outbreak dropped off rapidly in June, according to federal officials. Johnson-Walker said the virus can struggle at warmer temperatures, so some researchers hope for a reprieve soon.

Meanwhile the flu continues to spread west across the United States.

“Avian influenza has a season just like seasonal human influenza,” Johnson-Walker said. “We hope that come spring, summer it will just die out.”

• • •

How to avoid Avian influenza

Residents should:

Not touch sick or dead wild birds.

Disinfect bird feeders or baths only while wearing gloves.

Wash their hands after cleaning bird feeders or baths.

Keep wild birds away from domestic birds.

Hunters should:

Wear rubber gloves while cleaning birds and always wash their hands afterward.

Avoid eating, drinking or smoking while cleaning birds.

Disinfect tools and work surfaces.

Cook game and poultry thoroughly (check for an internal temperature of 165 degrees).

• • •

For more information

Read more online about avian influenza

Report dead birds online to the state

Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

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