Avian influenza viruses are naturally occurring in wild birds such as ducks, geese, swans, and gulls. These viruses generally do not cause illness in wild birds, however, when spread to poultry they can be highly pathogenic and cause illness and death in backyard and commercial farms. Outbreaks may cause devastating agricultural economic losses and some viral strains have the potential to infect people directly. Furthermore, the combination of avian influenza viruses with mammalian viruses can result in strains with the ability to transmit from person to person, possibly leading to viruses with pandemic potential. All known pandemic influenza viruses have had some genetic material of avian origin. Since 1996, a strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus, H5N1, has caused infection in wild birds, losses to poultry farms in Eurasia and North Africa, and led to the deaths of several hundred people. Spread of the H5N1 virus and other influenza strains from China was likely facilitated by migratory birds. In December 2014, HPAI was detected in poultry in Canada and migratory birds in the United States. Since then, HPAI viruses have spread to large parts of the United States and will likely continue to spread through migratory bird flyways and other mechanisms throughout North America. In the United States, HPAI viruses have severely affected the poultry industry with millions of domestic birds dead or culled. These strains of HPAI are not known to cause disease in humans; however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise caution when in close contact with infected birds. Experts agree that HPAI strains currently circulating in wild birds of North America will likely persist for the next few years. This unprecedented situation presents risks to the poultry industry, natural resource management, and potentially human health. Scientific knowledge and decision support tools are urgently needed to understand factors affecting the persistence of HPAI in wild birds, to forecast future spread of HPAI by wild birds, and to detect novel strains of HPAI that may emerge.
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