State to test more backyard chickens for deadly bird flu

SEATTLE -- The Washington State Department of Agriculture is increasing efforts to screen backyard chickens and other domestic fowl for bird flu to prevent an outbreak of the H7N9 virus that has killed 36 people in China.

The state's Avian Health Program is looking for owners of backyard chickens, ducks and geese to join Washington's Voluntary Flock Testing program. Experts will visit homes twice during a year-long period to test flocks for the virus by swabbing the birds' mouths and collecting eggs. The program is free for bird owners.

There have been no known cases of the H7N9 bird flu strain in Washington. But, Michelle Gill, who oversees the state's Animal Disease Traceability program, said testing backyard chickens could help contain the virus if it appears in this area.

"Washington has a lot of commercial poultry producers, and if we keep our backyard poultry safe and healthy that keeps our commercial poultry healthy," she said.

Gill said wild birds migrating from China to Mexico pass through Washington and could infect domestic birds.

When birds are infected with the H7N9 strain, she said they show no symptoms, so owners are typically unaware.

Eleni French of West Seattle has had chickens in her yard for five years, though she never considered having them tested for bird flu.

"I'm surprised to hear they could get it," French said. "I would never have thought we could catch bird flu here."

Still, even after learning about the state's free testing program, French said she does not feel a strong need to join.

And, she's not alone. The voluntary testing program has existed for three years and so far only 50 bird owners around the state have joined. Hector Castro, spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, is hoping to expand the program to include more flocks near commercial poultry, waterfowl refuges and within major bird flight paths.

"We're trying to keep the public safe and keep domestic poultry safe and healthy," Castro said. "We want a good network of volunteers in all parts of the state."

The Avian Health Program is also offering free testing for bird flu and salmonella to 4H students showing birds at state fairs.

"These diseases can be passed on to humans so all sorts of precautions should be taken when handling birds," Castro said. "Hand washing, keeping healthy birds and limiting contact."