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Utah officials discuss dangers avian influenza poses to backyard birds

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Avian bird influenza has made its way to Utah, and veterinarians said you don't want it getting to your backyard birds.

Warren Hess, acting state veterinarian for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said the deadly avian bird flu has been making its way along the West Coast of the United States. He said the virus hits with little warning.

"The most common symptom for avian influenza, unfortunately, is sudden death,” he said.

Hess said the flu is most often transferred by waterfowl, which can carry the virus but aren’t susceptible to symptoms.

“So you're not seeing sick waterfowl, you're seeing normal, healthy waterfowl walking around spreading this virus,” Hess said.

Hess said it’s important for people to keep poultry away from backyard ponds where waterfowl might be. He said a sturdy, high fence around chickens can help prevent them from interacting with birds that might be carrying the virus.

Hess said people like chicken-owner Shaun Meadows are doing a good job of protecting their birds.

"The other thing I really like about his set up, is that he's got this chicken coop here that's got an overhang on it,” Hess said. "That, if he needed to, he could corral his birds inside, or at least under the overhang, if he had a problem with wild birds coming into his yard."

“I'm glad that everything's right where it needs to be, and I'm glad I learned a little bit more too on the signs of the flu,” Meadows said.

There have been multiple cases in states like California and Oregon, but so far there has only been one known case of the avian flu in Utah—a hunted duck that tested positive for avian influenza.

But the Department of Agriculture and Food said they need to know if the virus pops up anywhere else, as it could be devastating to our state's large poultry industry.

"Once it gets into a poultry production, there's nothing you can do to treat them,” Hess said. “They have to be depopulated and cleaned out."

Hess said if it came to that, they have procedures.

"Every bird would be humanely euthanized and removed, and the house would be cleaned and sanitized and disinfected,” he said.

Hess said the risk to humans isn’t great.

"Avian influenza can occasionally be transmitted from birds to humans and cause a problem,” he said. “The particular viruses that we've identified so far this year are not crossing that barrier into humans.”

Anyone who thinks their backyard flock has been infected with avian influenza is asked to call the Utah Department of Agriculture at 801-538-7100.