Is the latest bird flu a risk to humans?

Give yourself and your pets a bit of protective distance from wild birds.

Media Contact: Susan Gregg,, 206-390-3226

Several harbor seals recently tested positive for a strain of H5N1 bird flu on Marrowstone Island in Puget Sound, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration West Coast Region. Marrowstone Island sits between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend in Jefferson County.

Although the chances are low that a person in Washington state would become infected, it’s still smart to take precautions, said Dr. Peter Rabinowitz, a professor in the University of Washington schools of Medicine and Public Health.

“It's really an unprecedented outbreak. The number of countries involved, the number of different types of animals involved, both birds and mammals, is something we've absolutely never seen before,” said Rabinowitz, a professor of family medicine and director of the UW's Center for One Health Research. The center investigates health links between humans and animals and their shared environments.  

“When you see a sick wild animal, there is always a potential risk to you if you go up and touch it or get too close to being infected,” Rabinowitz said. “You should always use a lot of caution, keep away from sick animals, call animal control, find some way that somebody can deal with it who can use adequate protective equipment. And that's certainly true if you are seeing sick harbor seals or sick seabirds in Washington state.” 

The initial H5N1 virus was identified in domestic birds in 1996. Rabinowitz said outbreaks of bird flu have become much more frequent since the discovery, and slowing them is an important but complicated health challenge. 

The Washington State Department of Health reports that this strain of H5N1 avian flu has been circulating in U.S. wild birds since January 2022. 

“Even when it jumps to mammals, it tends not to be transmitted from mammal to mammal,” Rabinowitz said. Still, he encourages people to be mindful to give themselves and their pets protective distance from wild birds. 

Download broadcast-ready soundbites about bird flu.

UW Medicine