Avian flu found in park ponds, golf courses of Ventura County

by Chris O’Neal

Enjoy a light mist landing on your exposed neck and arms near a park fountain? New research suggests that you might want to rethink getting so close. According to California State University, Channel Islands, lecturer Zin Htway, Ph.D., water fountains, ponds and other artificial water bodies can be breeding grounds for the influenza virus.

“When you see the fountain and have your lunch there and you’re getting hit with that mist . . . it’s like being sneezed on by a thousand people,” said Htway.

Htway says that the idea for his study, the results of which can be found in his article “Influenza A Viruses in Artificial Community Water Ponds: Potential for IAV Surveillance” came from the realization that migratory birds such as ducks, geese and so on, which play host to the influenza virus, often make stops on golf courses and community ponds on their way toward winter and summer nesting grounds. Htway says that a gap exists in monitoring such bodies of water for potential threats to humans. By confirming the virus’s presence, surveillance can begin and correlations can be made.

In his study, Htway writes that “It is imperative to identify potential sources of the virus to help minimize outbreak occurrences.”

Htway studied water bodies from the California border with Mexico and northward to Oregon in June and July of 2014 and discovered that his initial assumption that the virus would be found in greater numbers in rural areas was wrong; the virus, Htway discovered, was more prevalent in urban areas that have “more water and fewer predators.”

In Ventura County, Htway tested pond water at Conejo Creek Park in Thousand Oaks and at several golf courses within the county. Due to confidentiality agreements, and by stipulation of the Walden University Institutional Review Board that approved the study, the particular privately owned locations of testing cannot be identified.

Conejo Creek tested positive for the influenza A virus, as did the other areas tested in Ventura County.

Avian flu is no stranger to headlines. H5N1, a highly pathogenic influenza virus subtype, was named as the cause of the 2014 death of a Canadian who visited China, the first such death in the Americas. In 2015, the first bird carrying H5N1, a green-winged teal duck, was found in Washington State. Since discovery of the strain in China in 1997, 300 people worldwide have died from the virus, and millions of poultry. A related strain, H7N9, appeared in 2013 and thus far has claimed 43 human lives.

Htway says that water bodies act as breeding grounds for the virus and its many strains, which could lead to mutations that would allow the virus to infect humans, as was the case with H5N1, an avian virus that was transmitted via avian-to-human contact through poultry farming. Waterfowl such as ducks and geese breed in southern China — where strains such as H5N1 originated — before heading north, eventually making their way down the coasts of Canada, Oregon, Washington and California. Waterfowl can carry the strain without becoming sick themselves.

Htway’s next step in his research is determining ways to kill the virus in community ponds, which he says might be as easy as adding ultraviolet light filters. “It would be really easy to install a UV filter at the fountain pump and you can eliminate the virus.”

The study also provides an opportunity to monitor the virus and to be proactive in stopping an outbreak.

“If we have strains we can identify that can infect humans, we can develop vaccines for that geographical area instead of using the strategy of probability and statistics,” said Htway, the latter being the strategy currently adopted by the World Health Organization to combat the common flu.

Jim Friedl, general manager of the Conejo Recreation and Park District, says that park guests are strongly encouraged not to feed the ducks that have made the pond their home. Though every two years the pond is drained and cleaned, Friedl says that he is unaware of testing for viruses that may be present in the water.

The Conejo Creek Park’s pond, coincidentally, was drained and cleaned last week. A feature of the pond, according to Park Superintendent Matt Kouba, is a subsurface bio filter that strains the water through gravel, encouraging natural bacterial digestion of waterfowl waste. Fish and turtles in the pond also help to clean the water.

“One of our management challenges with the pond is the volume of ducks and waterfowl at the park,” said Friedl. “Despite lots of signage, we have many people who bring their young kids to feed the ducks.” Signs at the park warn visitors not to feed any animal to prevent poor nutrition, pollution and the spread of disease.

Another issue with feeding waterfowl, says Friedl, is that it encourages “unnatural behavior” (such as fearlessness with humans) and “that the waste generated by the ducks may be contributing to an elevated level of certain viruses.”

Htway agrees that families should take note of warning signs and be careful around ponds.

“It’s here, there’s no doubt,” said Htway. “People need . . . to be cautious. I see parents allowing their kids to play in the creek that runs from one pond to the next; they don’t realize that the water is contaminated.”

Htway will discuss his research on Tuesday, March 22, 6-8 p.m. at the Blanchard Community Library, 119 N. Eighth St., Santa Paula, as part of the CSU, Channel Islands, Spring Lecture Series. For more information, visit www.csuci.edu.