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Deadly bird flu found in ducks on the Mall in Washington

Mallard ducklings in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool were stricken, National Park Service says

The Lincoln Memorial reflects in the Reflecting Pool on May 29, 2022. (Ken Cedeno/Reuters)
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The virus that causes the deadly avian flu affecting millions of wild and domestic birds across the country has been detected in mallard ducklings in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool on the Mall, the National Park Service said Wednesday.

It was the first confirmation of the “highly pathogenic avian influenza,” or HPAI, in Washington, the park service said.

A “die-off” of more than a dozen ducklings at the reflecting pool was discovered a few weeks ago, Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst said Wednesday.

When the animals underwent necropsies, two were found to have been infected with bird flu. He said it was not yet clear what killed the others.

The virus is rarely transmitted to humans. “To date there has been only one documented human case of the currently circulating HPAI in the U.S.,” the Park Service said in a statement.

“We’re not looking at another covid-type situation,” Litterst said. “But because humans can unwittingly facilitate the transfer between groups of birds, we just want to get the word out there.”

So far, 39 million birds have been affected in flocks in 36 states — including 1.7 million in Maryland, 4 million in Pennsylvania and 1.4 million in Delaware, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Only 90 have been affected in Virginia.

The current virus is believed to pose a low risk to the general public, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although “some people may have job-related or recreational exposures to birds that put them at higher risk of infection.”

But people should avoid handling live or dead birds or coming into contact with their droppings as the virus can be easily moved around on shoes, the Park Service said.

Visitors to the area should watch out for “waterfowl feces,” and pets should be kept away from live or dead birds. People should report sick or dead birds to Park Service staff.

The virus is highly contagious among some wild birds and can be deadly for bald eagles and vultures, the Park Service said.

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Mallards are less likely than many other waterfowl species to show signs of disease and can be infected without appearing sick. The term “highly pathogenic” refers to the significant illness and mortality in poultry and other domestic birds that results from infection with this virus, the Park Service said.

Elsewhere in the area, 80 black vultures in Maryland’s Harford County were recently found dead due to the virus near wildlife areas along the Susquehanna River, officials have said. Vultures can be infected by scavenging infected dead birds.

They were among about 950 cases in wild birds, including at least 54 bald eagles.

Maryland and Delaware agriculture authorities said they have had reports of chickens at farms being infected with the bird flu since February. The vultures were found in recent weeks.

“The numbers are just staggering in terms of the poultry,” Charlie Broaddus, the state veterinarian in Virginia, said last month.

One of the biggest factors in the bird flu’s spread this year, he said, is that it’s being carried by wild ducks and geese that are infected but “don’t typically become affected” by it.

“They’re carriers,” Broaddus said, “but the genetic sequence has the potential to make domestic birds much, much sicker.”

Broaddus said the farms that have hens producing eggs that “end up in the supermarket” tend to be large-scale operations, where the flu can spread quickly.

Sometimes, he said, chickens at farms become infected when a farmer or worker “accidentally tracks through goose droppings near a pond” and then brings it into the chicken facility.

“It takes just one to be infected before they spread it to others,” Broaddus said.

Many wild birds don’t always show signs of the virus, but it can easily be transmitted between birds through their droppings or through respiratory secretions, experts said.

Agricultural officials at the Delaware-Maryland HPAI Joint Information Center said they were especially concerned about the vultures because they’re scavengers, and “if they eat a bird infected with avian influenza, whether it’s a migratory bird such as a Canadian goose, other waterfowl, or another vulture, they will ingest the virus and then can get sick and die.”

“We want to ensure [that people] are taking steps to stop the spread of the virus so that they don’t inadvertently transport it to other areas heavily populated with wild birds,” said Stacey Hofmann, a spokeswoman for the joint information center.

Agriculture experts at the joint information center have advised the public to “help limit the spread of the disease by not moving bird droppings via their shoes to other wild-bird habitats.” People should also change their shoes and clean off dirty shoes after they’ve visited a wild or natural area.

Experts say that spraying shoe bottoms with a common household cleaner such as Lysol or a diluted bleach spray will kill the avian influenza virus, according to an information center statement. For those with pet birds or poultry at home, officials recommend they “wash your hands, change clothes, and clean your shoes after visiting areas where wild birds frequent.”

Dana Hedgpeth and Vanessa Sanchez contributed reporting to this report.

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