Alpacas in Idaho test positive for H5N1 bird flu in another world first

Enlarge / Suri alpacas on a farm in Pennsylvania.

Four backyard alpacas in southern Idaho have tested positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1, marking the first time bird flu has been detected in members of the woolly camelid family, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USA

On Tuesday, the USDA announced that the agency’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories confirmed the infection on a farm in Jerome County on May 16. While the infections are a first for spitting llama relatives, the USDA said they were not particularly surprising. The alpacas were in close contact with HPAI-infected poultry on the farm, which was “depopulated” this month. Of the 18 alpacas on the affected farm, only four were infected. No deaths were documented, according to a report the USDA submitted to the World Organization for Animal Health.

Genomic sequencing indicates that the H5N1 virus infecting alpacas (B3.13) matches both the virus currently circulating among U.S. dairy cows and the virus that infected the farm’s birds.

According to the Alpaca Owners Association, there are more than 264,000 alpacas in the United States.

The finding does not increase the threat of H5N1 to the general public, but again highlights the virus’s alarming ability to spread easily to mammals. The USDA has documented hundreds of cases of H5N1 in a wide range of mammals since May 2022, when the outbreak strain began to spread in North America. In March, the USDA announced an unprecedented outbreak among dairy cows. But the agency has found that the virus spreads in mink, raccoons, foxes, cats, seals, bears, mountain lions, bottlenose dolphins, goats and coyotes, among other animals. With each new species and infection, H5N1 gains new opportunities to adapt and better infect and spread among mammals. And as the virus jumps to mammals in close contact with humans, the risk increases that the virus will have the opportunity to adapt to spread among humans.

USDA and state officials continue to identify H5N1 in dairy herds. According to the latest data from the USDA tracking site, at least 66 dairy herds in nine states have been infected.

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