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Mass. officials suspect avian influenza is cause of seabirds’ deaths along coast, warn against handling them

Samantha Gitschier, the assistant animal control officer in West Tisbury on Martha's Vineyard, is seen here picking up dead cormorants. State officials say they suspect avian influenza in the recent deaths of seabirds.Kathleen Hoffman

Massachusetts environmental and health officials said Wednesday that they suspect that avian influenza is killing seabirds along the coast.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) very rarely infects humans, officials said, but they warned that kind-hearted beachcombers should avoid touching dead or sick birds.

“Although the risk is low, direct contact with infected birds or heavily contaminated environments can sometimes spread the disease to people. People are urged not to handle or feed any birds suspected of being infected,” Dr. Catherine Brown, state epidemiologist, said in a statement.

The virus has been detected in domestic and wild birds from Canada to Florida for the past several months, the officials said.

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The coastal birds that are affected include eiders, cormorants, seagulls, ducks, and terns, officials said.

Hundreds of dead birds have recently been found on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, the Globe reported Tuesday. Officials asked people to report sick or dead birds at mass.gov/reportbirds.

“Over the past week, Massachusetts has seen a substantial uptick in reports of dead and dying seabirds, including eiders, cormorants, and gulls,” Andrew Vitz, MassWildlife state ornithologist, said in the statement. “We are asking for the public’s help in reporting observations of sick shorebirds along the coastline. Prompt reporting will expedite testing and diagnosis in cooperation with our state and federal partners who have been monitoring HPAI for several years.”

The officials also said people should report sick or dead poultry or other domestic birds to the state Department of Agricultural Resources at 617-626-1795. The virus is often fatal to chickens, and can spread rapidly from flock to flock, the US Department of Agriculture says.

People who have to handle dead birds should wear nitrile or latex gloves, eye protection, and an N95 mask, state officials said.

Officials warned in early March that avian influenza had been detected in multiple areas of Massachusetts.

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Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.