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Last Update: May 22, 2006 12:47 PM

20 Questions about bird flu

Q. Are bird flu and a flu pandemic the same thing?

A. No. H5N1 bird flu primarily infects birds. In recent years, 204 people worldwide are known to have become infected; 113 died. The danger is if the bird flu virus mutates and becomes more easily transmitted from person to person. At that point, it could lead to a pandemic, which is a worldwide, rapid spread of the virus. All people would be susceptible, and death rates could be high.

Q. What happens if a bird with H5N1 is found in Alaska?

A. Don't be surprised, and don't panic. So far, the virus is primarily a threat to birds, not people. If the virus is detected in wild birds here, domestic poultry should be contained to avoid exposure. People would need to be more careful around wild birds.

Migratory patterns will be studied to determine where sick birds might be headed next. The virus will be to studied to see if it has mutated, potentially making it easier to transmit to people.

Q. If pandemic flu comes to Anchorage, will schools close?

A. That's a possibility. Mayor Mark Begich and Carol Comeau, school district superintendent, will decide jointly when and if schools need to close here.

The Anchorage School District is updating its emergency plan to address the issue. Questions still need answers: What percentage of students or faculty would have to be absent to close schools? If social isolation is recommended, will schools automatically close? Schools may also be needed to house people.

Q. Can I get bird flu from eating poultry bought from a store?

A. State Fish and Game officials say the answer is no. Chicken and turkey sold in the United States come from North American farms where H5N1 has not been detected. The birds also are regularly inspected and tested.

Poultry and eggs from infected parts of the world are not allowed into the United States. Cooking kills the H5N1 virus.

Q. What about goose droppings in my yard or on the Delaney Park Strip?

A. H5N1 has not been found in geese here yet. But these birds carry other organisms that can make you sick, including campylobacter and salmonella bacteria. If you come into contact with goose droppings, wash your hands and avoid contact with your mouth and eyes.

If H5N1 is found in geese in Alaska, the message is the same. Any stronger advisory would depend on whether the sick bird was in the Anchorage area or had had contact with geese here.

Q. Can small birds visiting my feeder get bird flu? Does feeding them put my family at risk?

A. Public health and wildlife officials say small birds elsewhere have been infected by the H5N1 virus. Small birds also can carry bacteria that are harmful to people.

Bird feeders aren't recommended because birds don't need extra food in the summer and the feeders attract bears.

When it comes to H5N1, however, health and wildlife officials say bird feeders are unlikely to pose a significant threat to homeowners.

Q. Should I use special precautions when I clean my birdbath?

A. Bird droppings can contain a number of harmful bacteria and other organisms. Bird baths should be cleaned about once a week using a solution of 10 percent bleach, the rest water. People should wear gloves and wash their hands and any cleaning tools used with soap and water.

Q. Should I keep my cat inside all summer?

A. Domestic and larger wild cats have been infected with and died from H5N1 in other countries. There are no reports of people getting H5N1 from cats.

Because H5N1 is not here, there's no risk yet for an outdoor cat. Still, owners should discourage cats from going outside and catching wild birds because they carry a number of disease-causing bacteria that can affect cats, such as salmonella.

Q. Do I need to worry about my hunting dog or family dog picking up a bird infected by bird flu?

A. Dogs in other countries have been exposed to the H5N1 virus, but so far there's no evidence that they get sick or die from the disease.

Q. Can I catch bird flu from drinking lake or river water used by wild birds?

A. Drinking water doesn't transmit any kind of flu virus. If infected birds congregate in a confined body of water, you might get sick from bird flu, but you still are more likely to get sick from other bacteria that birds carry.

Q. What about swimming or wading in water visited by wild birds?

A. See answer above.

Q. Would boiling the water kill the H5N1 virus?

A. Yes. Boiling water kills H5N1. Don't rely on everyday backpacking filters to remove bird flu from water, even if the filter is designed to remove viruses.

Q. Can the virus survive if it's frozen?

A. Yes. The H5N1 virus can survive if frozen and remains dangerous after thawing.

Q. What if you find a sick or dead bird?

A. State wildlife officials want to know about any sick or dead birds that look suspicious, especially multiple dead birds in one area. If you've found such a bird or birds, call 1-866-527-3358.

Keep certain questions in mind:

• Where did you see the birds?

• When did you see the birds?

• If you visit this area often, when was the first time you noticed the birds?

• How many birds did you see?

• What kind of birds were they?

• How did the birds look? Were the carcasses old or fresh? Did they look plump or skinny?

• Were there an unusual number of eagles or other scavenger birds in the area?

Wildlife officials do not want you to touch sick or dead birds because they may be carrying something that could cause human illness.

Q. If people must be quarantined during a pandemic, where will they go?

A. During the SARS scare a few years ago, health officials quarantined a man who flew to Anchorage and developed symptoms. But pandemic flu likely would behave differently from SARS. People could be infectious before they develop symptoms. That limits the effectiveness of quarantining the ill.

A better way to stop the spread of pandemic flu would be to limit direct or face-to-face contact with friends and strangers. That means avoiding hugs or handshakes during social interactions.

Q. Should we keep our domestic birds indoors all summer?

A. With no H5N1 here yet, the answer is no. Still, put up a barrier between domestic birds and wild birds. Options include a fence, netting or a screen across the tops of pens to keep wild birds out.

If H5N1 arrives, domestic birds should be kept inside or thoroughly covered. Avoid standing water in outside pens that could attract wild birds.

Q. Ducks visit Chester Creek, and families feed them. Should this continue? Is there a concern with ducks milling around near people?

A. It's not wise to feed wild birds. If H5N1 arrives, feeding birds may encourage them to congregate in large groups that could accelerate spread of the virus. Bird viewing is a different story. People can continue watching ducks, but they should stay away from sick ones.

Q. Can you safely hunt and eat wild birds in Alaska?

A. No human has caught bird flu from wild birds. Still, state Fish and Game officials recommend the following safety precautions when hunting birds:

• Don't touch birds that are sick or dead.

• Keep game birds cool, clean and dry.

• Don't eat, drink or smoke while cleaning birds.

• Use rubber gloves when cleaning birds.

• Wash your hands with soap and water or use alcohol-based sanitizer after working with birds.

• Clean surfaces and tools with hot, soapy water. Disinfect both with a 10 percent chlorine bleach solution.

To kill viruses and bacteria in meat, cook it thoroughly, to an internal temperature of 155 to 165 degrees.

Q. What about collecting eggs or berries?

A. Bird viruses can be found in bird droppings, which means they also could be found on the outside of bird eggs. People should wash the eggs and cook or boil them to kill any viruses and bacteria.

There's also little chance bird droppings will be found on berries, but people should wash berries anyway.

Q. During a pandemic, state health officials might ask people to isolate themselves at home for a while to prevent spreading or catching the contagious flu virus. How many weeks of food and water should you stockpile for this time period?

A. Each person should have at least seven days' worth of food, water and other supplies on hand for any kind of emergency, be it an earthquake, storm or flu pandemic.

Pandemics, however, may last much longer than a one-time event like an earthquake. In that case, officials may ask people to prepare for longer periods of time. At the very least, they believe a seven-day stockpile is a good start.

Sources: Alaska Department of Fish and Game; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Alaska Department of Health and Social Services; Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium; Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation; Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management; Anchorage School District; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; World Health Organization.

For more questions and answers, check these state Web sites:


Fact sheet:

Subsistence bird hunting:

Bird hunting:

Daily News reporter Ann Potempa can be reached at 257-4581 or

logoWhat can keep the kids busy after school is out? The annual Anchorage Daily News camp guide offers hundreds of options.

A supplemental list of camps will be published on April 25, 2006 for those that missed the deadline for the camp guide.