West Nile Virus, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza H5N1, and other zoonotic diseases: what ornithologists and bird banders should know

Avian Influenza-OC Fact Sheet 2010

Highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 (“HPAI H5N1”) first made news in 2004 and seemed to dominate headlines for several years. The alarmism belied the fact that the impact to human health has been slight, especially with regard to wild birds. Through 2010, only seven human cases of H5N1 HPAI infection appeared to be related to contact with wild birds, and these resulted from the plucking of feathers from dead swans in Azerbaijan. It is not clear that all seven cases resulted from contact with the dead birds, or if one or more cases resulted from contact with those who handled the dead birds (Tsiodras et al. 2008; WHO 2006). At least in the United States, HPAI H5N1 has faded from the news, but it wasn’t the first avian wildlife disease to cause substantial concern and it won’t be the last. Only a few years earlier, West Nile Virus (WNV) commanded the public’s attention when it first appeared in the United States. When it reached the United States in 1999,  researchers, universities, government research agencies, and other research organizations became concerned about the risk to field biologists, students, and others. Perhaps out of an abundance of caution and spurred by constant media attention, one university cancelled field research and field biology classes that involved handling birds.

The Ornithological Council – a consortium of 11 scientific ornithological societies in the Western Hemisphere – consulted with experts to compile this fact sheet about the risks of HPAI H5N1, WNV, and other avian zoonotic pathogens to ornithologists and bird banders and to provide the most up-to-date occupational safety and animal welfare recommendations for those handling live birds, carcasses, or tissues that are potentially infected.

Because ornithologists and bird banders handle live birds, prepare specimens, and handle blood and other tissues of avian origin, they need to understand the means of transmission of zoonotic pathogens and know effective means to protect themselves and the birds they study. The measures that should be taken to avoid contracting a zoonotic disease and to avoid transmitting it to others should be commensurate with the extent of the risk and of the consequence of contracting the disease. Preventive measures can be burdensome and interfere with research techniques, especially under field conditions. However, if encountering a pathogen that has the potential to cause serious disease, more extensive measures are warranted even if burdensome, uncomfortable, or costly. Check frequently for updates of this fact sheet as new zoonotic diseases emerge or as conditions or degree of risk may change. Updates will be posted on BIRDNET, the website of the Ornithological Council .