Avian Flu Kills Polar Bear in Alaska

Alaska wildlife officials recently reported the first case of avian flu in a polar bear — fueling international concern over the persistent virus.

A biologist working in the state’s remote North Slope region found the carcass, according to Robert Gerlach, Alaska’s state veterinarian. Swab samples from the dead animal confirmed that it was carrying the pathogenic H5N1 strain.

“We have had birds detected with the avian influenza virus in that area. So we’re making the assumption that the bear had come up onto land and had probably scavenged one of the dead or dying birds, and gotten exposed that way,” Gerlach told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

H5N1 started circulating throughout poultry populations in 2021. After ravaging domestic and wild birds, it began spreading to birds of prey.

An American poultry farm. Photo: Creative Commons


By April 2023, the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control had found it in skunks, foxes, and marine animals.

North Slope veterinarian Jane Harms told the CBC that news of the infected polar bear didn’t surprise her. Even though known infections in Alaska have proven rare, the virus’ persistence elsewhere points to a worsening outcome.

The current global outbreak of H5N1 has killed millions of birds. While it rarely spreads to humans, experts are worried. The virus has caused acute symptoms in birds, and although humans haven’t proven highly susceptible yet, the risk is prescient.

“Currently the risk to people is very, very low,” said Gerlach. “But as this virus adapts or mutates, will it change and cause more of a problem?”

No vaccine or cure for H5N1 currently exists.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson spent his 20s as an adventure rock climber, scampering throughout the western U.S., Mexico, and Thailand to scope out prime stone and great stories. Life on the road gradually transformed into a seat behind the keyboard, where he acted as a founding writer of the AllGear Digital Newsroom and earned 1,500+ bylines in four years on topics from pro rock climbing to slingshots and scientific breakthroughs.