Seriously, Now Is the Time to Stop Kissing Sick Birds

New Yorkers, be careful: If you encounter a sick, dead, or strangely behaving bird or animal, keep yourself and your pets at a safe distance. The avian flu virus, H5N1, is present in at least a small fraction of New York City’s birds, according to a new study.

This finding is not entirely surprising, given that H5N1 has been shown to affect migratory birds, a wide range of wildlife, poultry and, as of last month, dairy cows. However, its discovery in the city is an unpleasant reminder that urban spaces are not immune to it.

People typically associate zoonotic diseases with rural settings, farms or wilderness, said Florian Krammer, an influenza expert at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, who led the study published online last week.

But New York City has many green spaces and bodies of water used by migratory and local birds, he said: “There is an extensive interface between wildlife and humans in cities. »

“There is no reason to panic, but it is good to be aware of it,” he added.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned health care providers to watch for signs of avian flu infection. So far, only two Americans have been reported infected with H5N1, one in 2022 and the other earlier this month.

The virus has caused large outbreaks among mink and foxes and wiped out thousands of marine mammals, particularly in South America. Scientists have tracked the virus along migratory routes and stopovers, among wild birds in rural areas and commercial poultry farms and, more recently, among livestock on dairy farms.

But now the virus “is everywhere,” said Seema Lakdawala, a virologist at Emory University. “I would be surprised if in any urban environment you went to you didn’t find a small percentage of H5.”

“This is an important lesson for all major cities,” she added.

Migratory birds and other species live in urban green spaces and wetlands, where they may encounter scavengers, such as squirrels, pets and even humans. Cats and dogs are susceptible to the bird flu virus and can contract it from infected birds, their droppings or contaminated water.

“People don’t think there’s a lot of wildlife in New York, but we’re actually very wealthy,” said Rita McMahon, director and co-founder of the nonprofit Wild Bird Fund. , a wildlife rehabilitation center in New York.

The new study is the product of the New York City Virus Hunters initiative, a collaboration between the rehabilitation center, Mount Sinai scientists, community members and a science outreach organization. It includes high school students who are members of minority groups underrepresented in science.

From January 2022 to November 2023, researchers collected samples of bird species ranging from wild ducks and geese to shorebirds and raptors. Some birds were already dead; others showed neurological symptoms and were euthanized.

Among the approximately 1,900 animal samples, they found versions of H5N1 in six, in four species: Canada geese in the Bronx and Queens; a red-tailed hawk near a major highway in Queens; a Canada goose and a peregrine falcon in Brooklyn; and a chicken in Upper Manhattan.

The researchers weren’t surprised to find the virus in Canada geese and raptors, but “it was somewhat unexpected to receive samples from a chicken found in Marcus Garvey Park,” they wrote.

The team has found two more infected birds since the study ended. “I expect that as we continue our research, we will find more,” Dr. Krammer said. The low number of infected birds found so far could be the result of the test used by researchers, which does not detect small amounts of virus, he explained.

Dr. Lakdawala praised the citizen science aspect of the project as a way to collect more samples than would be possible through formal monitoring efforts alone, while also raising public awareness about safe sample handling.

“The USDA can’t do everything, the CDC can’t do everything,” she said, referring to the federal agencies that typically conduct such oversight. “We really need to build broader networks so we can get better insight into what’s going on and what the viruses are.”

At the same time, she added, residents should be responsible and not touch a dead bird. The New York City Health Department advises residents to report sick, dead, or strangely behaving birds and animals by calling 311.

Each year, some 9,000 people bring injured wildlife – from songbirds and pigeons to squirrels and opossums – to the Wild Bird Fund’s rehabilitation center. Some people have tears in their eyes. Others “come and kiss a sick goose, thinking it will help it,” Ms. McMahon said.

But now New Yorkers should be even more cautious when they see an injured or sick bird or animal, she said.

“That doesn’t mean they can’t save it and bring it to us,” Ms McMahon said. But people should wear gloves, wrap the animal and take other precautions.

And “no kissing,” she said. “Direct physical affection is not a plus for the animal.”

News Source :
Gn Health

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