Geese to be watched for bird flu

Scientists will monitor snow geese in the Stanwood and Skagit Valley areas this fall as part of a statewide effort to check migratory birds for signs of bird flu.

“This year, we’re really stepping up our efforts,” said Don Kraege, who is a manager overseeing water fowl issues for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Some $440,000 in state and federal funds will be spent during the next year in monitoring for avian flu in migratory birds, he said.

The efforts will include checks of shorebirds on the Washington coast in late July, Kraege said. Monitoring of snow geese and other migratory birds will begin in September or October.

In addition to the monitoring of snow geese around Stanwood and Skagit County, there will be checks of trumpeter swans in Whatcom County and cackling geese in the Vancouver, B.C., area, said Kristin Mansfield, a veterinarian for state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Monitoring for the bird flu virus is part of national and international efforts to look for signs that the virus is spreading.

The influenza virus is found primarily in birds, but infections also can occur in humans in close contact with infected birds.

International attention is being focused on the virus because of concerns it could mutate and spread easily among humans, possibly triggering a global flu pandemic.

The virus can also wipe out domestic poultry flocks. When bird flu was detected among British Columbia poultry flocks in 2004, 17 million birds were destroyed in efforts to help stop its spread.

The bird flu virus now circulating in Asia, Europe and Africa “still remains primarily a bird disease,” Mansfield said.

Washington’s farmers are being asked to report any large die-offs of chicken flocks or signs of infection to the state veterinarian’s office, she said.

Symptoms of the disease in chickens include sneezing, listlessness, nasal discharge and diarrhea, Mansfield said.

“It could really devastate the (poultry) industry if it got into those flocks,” she said.

About 10 percent of Washington’s 2,500 commercial poultry farms are in Snohomish County, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics from 2002, the latest numbers available. The 224 chicken farms in Snohomish County had flocks numbering about 362,000 birds.

Although it’s now relatively rare for the virus to affect humans, it is thought to have killed more than 100 people in several Asian nations. Sick chickens are suspected of spreading the virus.

Bird flu is worth monitoring “because the potential risk is huge,” said Donn Moyer, a spokesman for the state Department of Health. “You don’t want to find out too late.”

Reporter Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com.

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