2009 influenza A (H1N1) in free ranging Vancouver skunks

Photo: donjd2 from Flickr

In January 2010, a fatal outbreak of influenza A 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) pneumonia in eight free ranging striped skunks which frequented a mink farm in the lower Fraser Valley was diagnosed by the Animal Health Centre in Abbotsford, British Columbia. This occurred during the worldwide pandemic of 2009 H1N1, and it was concluded that the skunks had most likely contracted the virus as a result of human exposure.  In March 2011, the Animal Health Centre again diagnosed fatal 2009 H1N1 pneumonia in a skunk that was found dead in a large public park in Vancouver.  City park workers reported that hand feeding skunks is a common practice by park visitors and it was presumed that the skunk had contracted the virus due to human exposure.

As a result of these findings, an influenza survey was initiated whereby dead skunks found by Vancouver city park workers are submitted to the Animal Health Centre for full necropsy and tested for influenza virus. To date, eight skunks have been analyzed. Seven skunks were found to have died from severe trauma. The cause of death could not be determined in the eighth skunk due to advanced decomposition. All of the eight submissions were negative for influenza virus.

Influenza virus infection of skunks has not been detected in surveys of wildlife conducted by other investigators. We hypothesize that influenza virus is highly virulent for skunks and thus, seemingly healthy skunks are not likely carriers of the disease.  If so, this would constitute a true anthroponotic disease: influenza virus passes from humans to skunks but not from skunks to humans. To minimize the potential for influenza exposure, human contact by way of hand feeding, petting or littering in areas frequented by skunks should be publicly discouraged, especially during influenza season.

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