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Highly pathogenic avian influenza: how it will affect ornithologists in Canada, the United States, and Mexico

By Ornithological Council


Researchers in Canada trap ducks for HPAI testing. No personal protective garb in sight!
When zoonotic disease makes the headlines, you can be sure your university is going to be concerned about what those crazy ornithologists are doing! Tell them, "Don't worry - I'm not planning to kiss any ducks!"
This news and analysis are provided by the Ornithological Council, a consortium supported by 12 ornithological societies. Join or renew your membership in your ornithological society if you value the services these societies provide to you, including Ornithology Exchange and the Ornithological Council!

With the emergence of two forms of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the United States, Canada, and Mexico this past year, it is likely that ornithological researchers who do field work will be asked by their Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs) and/or their institution’s risk management committees to explain what precautions they will take to avoid contracting this disease.

The H5N1 strain that was first identified in 1996 in China and that re-emerged in 2003 to affect more than 50 countries caused severe disease and death among those who had close and prolonged contact with infected birds. For this strain, the CDC recommends general precautions such as avoiding wild birds – hardly practical for field ornithologists.

The strains that appeared in the Pacific Northwest in 2015 were identified as HPAI H5N2 and HPAI H5N8, the latter being a reassortment of H5N8 and North American strains of avian influenza. Public officials stated at the time that there is no immediate public health concern with either of these avian influenza viruses. Both H5N2 and H5N8 viruses have been found in other parts of the world and have not caused any human infection to date. The avian influenza that affected millions of chickens and turkeys in the midwest was H5N2. No human illness or mortality was reported. However, because of the extensive press coverage, it is likely that universities will focus on HPAI and its potential impacts on its faculty, staff, and students.

On 16 July 2015, the USDA, USGS, and other federal agencies released an update on the species of wild birds in the United States found to have been infected with HPAI and the subtypes that were identified. The agencies have developed a broad surveillance plan, focusing on waterfowl (particularly dabbling ducks).

When preparing its peer-reviewed fact sheet on zoonotic avian disease, the Ornithological Council consulted numerous experts and references and made these recommendations:

o Avoid unprotected contact with feces, secretions, blood, and fluids.
o Wear protective clothing including shoe covers or rubber boots, eye protection, and gloves.


(That being said, peruse this blog from the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, describing their duck-trapping and testing protocols...check out the photos!).


o If you cannot do so, decontaminate and clean yourself immediately after exposure, using a detergent-based cleanser.
o Disinfect or dispose of protective clothing after use.
o Learn to remove gloves and protective clothing in a manner that avoids skin contact; consult your safety officer or safety manual.
o Wash hands immediately with soap and water.
o Use a respirator or mask to avoid inhalation of aerosolized droplets; otherwise, work upwind of birds to avoid inhaling aerosolized fecal material, feathers, and dander.
o After handling birds, use detergent-based cleansers to wash hands, equipment, and clothing. Alcohol (70%) or alcohol-based cleansers or diluted household bleach (10% strength) will also kill the virus.
o Avoid eating or drinking while handling birds or bird parts.
o Consider having antiviral medications on hand. Ask your physician if you should take these medications on a prophylactic basis before you begin working in a country or region where H5N1 has been confirmed or along pathways used by birds migrating to, from, or through countries or regions where H5N1 occurs. Any influenza strain can become resistant to one or more drugs; genetically distinct H5N1 subtypes have already been found in Asia and some antivirals may be more effective for some subtypes than for others. Be sure to check current health information from a credible source, such as the Centers for Disease Control for both country disease status and antiviral recommendations and seek a prescription for the appropriate medication from your physician.
o Consider vaccines, if they are available.


The university or research institution may attempt to restrict field research. Know the disease status of the countries where you intend to work and be prepared to explain to the risk management office (or, in the United States, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which, in many universities, performs risk management functions) and the precautions you plan to take. It is the researcher’s responsibility to know the recommended precautions and to make arrangements to obtain and use the appropriate materials, such as disinfectants, gloves, and eye protection.

Please review the OC fact sheet for information about precautions to take when working in the lab, quarantine requirements, import restrictions, and more.


Please contact the Ornithological Council if your university refuses to allow you to conduct field research or take students out for field trips.


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