Avian influenza, a “highly pathogenic” viral disease that infects poultry and birds—and is potentially transmissible to humans—has been detected in San Benito County, according to local public health officials. 

The disease, also known as “bird flu,” was found recently in poultry flocks in a number of California counties, including San Benito. 

Although the risk to the general human public is low, the county’s Health and Human Services Agency is warning residents of the potential danger of handling or coming into close contact with a diseased or dead bird, the county said in a press release. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Bird flu viruses do not normally infect humans. However, sporadic human infections with  bird flu viruses have occurred.”

For infected flock or flocks, however, bird flu can be “devastating,” San Benito County Epidemiologist Mallory Schmitt said. 

Locally, the recent avian influenza outbreak occurred at a commercial farm that deals with ducks and geese, Schmitt said. The disease is so contagious among birds, that a single detected case is considered an outbreak within the flock. 

“Multiple birds were noted to have a drop in egg production, and was an indicator that something might be wrong with the birds at this particular site,” Schmitt said. The sickly birds were tested, and tests came back positive for bird flu. 

Public health officials are not disclosing the exact commercial site where the disease was detected, Schmitt said. 

As a precaution, all birds that came into contact with the infected animals at the site must be euthanized. “Otherwise, it will continue to spread throughout that population,” Schmitt said. 

The commercial producer is also required to close production for a period of time and clean the site before resuming operations. 

The recent case of bird flu is the first at a commercial site in San Benito County, at least in recent memory. Schmitt noted that last year, avian influenza was detected in a Canadian goose in the wild in San Benito County. 

“The scary thing about bird flu is, it affects all kinds of birds. We’re talking about wildlife, too,” said Schmitt. 

Although the risk to the general human public is low, public health officials say precautions should be taken by those who have job-related or recreational exposure to birds. The virus is transmitted through bodily fluids such as respiratory droplets, saliva and feces, says the county’s press release. 

Transmission may occur directly from bird to bird or indirectly through people, animals or contaminated objects. “Although rare, symptoms to be aware of include fever, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, conjunctivitis, headaches, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, or diarrhea. If you develop symptoms within 10 days of exposure to an infected animal, call your healthcare provider,” says the release. 

The “best practice” to avoid exposure or infection is to avoid handling dead birds or birds that show signs of distress or illness, says the release. While severe cases can occur in humans, symptoms rarely progress beyond those of a common cold. 

Birds infected with avian influenza may show signs such as weakness, lack of coordination, respiratory distress, diarrhea, weakness and lack of appetite, public health officials said. Wild game birds may be susceptible to infection with signs similar to domestic poultry. 

To report unusual or suspicious wild bird deaths, fill out an online form at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife site at https://tinyurl.com/38a3v2rr, or report by email at [email protected]. Reports can also be made by phone to the SPCA Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center at 831.624.5427. 

Sick or dead domestic, pet or collection birds can be reported to the California Department of Food and Agriculture Sick Bird Hotline at 866.922.2473.

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Michael Moore is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor for the Morgan Hill Times, Hollister Free Lance and Gilroy Dispatch since 2008. During that time, he has covered crime, breaking news, local government, education, entertainment and more.


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