Michigan Birds Test Positive for Bird Flu

By: Tony Tagliavia
By: Tony Tagliavia

It all started with a pair of wild swans in Monroe County, mute swans much like the one living in the duck pound at Lansing's Potter Park Zoo.

"There's been a possible presence of low-pathenogenic H5N1 avian influenza," Michigan DNR Director Rebecca Humphries announced Monday.

A presence discovered after just one week of nationwide testing. Health and agriculture experts say it was expected. And they believe it doesn't pose a direct danger to humans.

"This is not the highly pathogenic flu that has spread through birds in Asia, Europe and Africa," Humphries said. Still, final testing won't be available for two weeks, so until then, officials cannot completely rule it out.

That highly pathogenic -- meaning highly disease-causing -- H5N1 is believed to be responsible for 138 human deaths around the world.

The one found in Michigan is a low-pathogenic H5N1 that experts say occurs naturally in birds. In fact, a similar strain was found roughly four years ago in West Michigan turkeys.

Still, there is concern about the new find.

"This virus can mutate," Humphries said.

That is, it can mutate from the low-pathogenic strain into the high-pathogenic strain. But just how likely is that?

"That is a theoretical potentiality. But there's no indication that it's likely to happen here. In fact, it's doubtful," said Dr. Dean Sienko, acting chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Community Health.

While the bird flu found in swans poses no direct threat to humans, health officials say, its discovery is a good sign that the state is doing what's needed to prevent a real problem.

"This is why we have surveillance systems. This is why we watch these things and monitor these bird populations so that we have a good handle on what's happpening," Sienko said.

And while testing can ensure that a more serious outbreak is found quickly and isolated, health experts warn it seems nothing can prevent eventual discovery of a highly pathogenic strain in this part of the world.

"I've heard federal scientists and federal officials say by the end of the calendar year, we will have the highly pathogenic H5N1 in the Western Hemisphere," Sienko said.

Something it appears hasn't happend just yet.


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