State Task Force Formed to Address Avian Flu; Group Will Provide Surveillance for and Education About the Disease

A statewide task force focused on avian influenza has begun work on addressing the threat of the disease spreading to Colorado through a number of sources, such as migratory birds, and will be providing resources, education and information to the public and professionals.

The task force will oversee a plan developed in 2004 by the Colorado State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, Colorado Department of Agriculture and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to establish a surveillance program for the disease. To date, the diagnostic laboratory at Colorado State has tested 1,000 birds from more than 150 privately owned flock sites in Colorado for avian influenza. The task force will work to secure funding to expand these current surveillance efforts to monitor for avian flu in wild birds as well as to provide education for the public, including bird owners, hunters and veterinarians.

The task force is comprised of experts from Colorado State, Colorado Department of Agriculture, Colorado Division of Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture Veterinary Services and Wildlife Services, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Colorado Veterinary Medical Association and the Colorado Livestock Association.

"Migratory birds, such as wild ducks and geese, pose a significant risk of bringing avian influenza to Colorado," said Kristy Pabilonia, coordinator of statewide avian surveillance and testing at the university’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. "Our current surveillance program focuses on people who may own a small flock of birds – chickens, turkeys, waterfowl or game birds such as pheasants or quail – on their property, known as backyard flocks. This task force will expand the program to look at migratory waterfowl that travel into the state from other regions and countries."

The task force also will work to extend protocols for additional surveillance of wild fowl and to train key professionals across the state including veterinarians, people in the animal industry and government workers about the clinical signs of the diseases in birds and measures that can be taken to protect fowl from contracting and spreading avian influenza.

"We’ll focus on educating people who have the most contact with backyard flocks and wild birds about the signs and symptoms of the disease," said Dr. Wayne Cunningham, state veterinarian with the Department of Agriculture. "We also will provide online education for a variety of audiences – hunters, bird owners, veterinarians and others – who are looking for information about the disease, how to help watch for avian flu in our domestic and wild bird populations and who to contact with reports of sick or dying birds."

The task force is on target to complete plans to expand the current surveillance program by the end of the year.

Bird flu infection is caused by influenza A virus. There are many different combinations of this virus, which cause a range of illness or disease in birds – from mild to highly lethal illness. Avian influenza viruses are categorized as either low pathogenic avian influenza or highly pathogenic avian influenza, based on the virus’s ability to produce disease. The current outbreak of avian influenza is subtype H5N1, which is a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus. Avian influenza viruses can infect a wide variety of birds including chickens, turkeys, ducks and pheasants. Wild waterfowl across the globe act as a reservoir, or carrier, for the virus.  

Infected birds shed flu virus in their saliva, nasal secretions and feces. Susceptible birds become infected when they contact excretions or surfaces that are contaminated by excretions from sick birds. It is believed that most cases of human infection are a result of an individual’s contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces. Bird flu viruses generally do not infect humans, but several cases of human infection with the H5N1 avian influenza virus have been reported in Asia. Symptoms of bird flu in humans range from typical flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat and muscle aches to pneumonia, severe respiratory diseases and other severe and life-threatening complications.

There is a possible risk of transmission of bird flu to people who have contact with infected birds or surfaces that have been contaminated with excretions from infected birds. In such situations, people should avoid contact with infected birds or contaminated surfaces and should follow general food safety guidelines when handling and cooking poultry. There currently is no evidence to suggest that H5N1 avian influenza virus is present in the United States.