SAVANNAH, Georgia (WSAV) — A highly infectious strain of bird flu has been detected in bald eagles in Chatham, Glynn and Liberty counties for the first time, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Samples from three bald eagles found dead in each county, one each, tested suspected positive last month by the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in Athens and were confirmed recently by the USDA National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa.

The viral disease called highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has impacted nesting success for eagles in Georgia. Dr. Bob Sargent, a program manager with DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section, estimates that nest success along the coast this year is down nearly 30 percent.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that HPAI has been detected in wild birds in more than 30 states this year, with 11 birds being in Georgia. Almost a third of all eagle nests in Georgia are located in coastal counties.

Avian influenza, or bird flu, can infect wild and domestic birds, as well as other animals. The HPAI strain is contagious, untreatable and potentially lethal to infected animals. Officials believe the eagles could have contracted the virus by preying or scavenging on dead or sick waterbirds. Other dead bald eagles have contracted HPAI in other Southeastern states, including Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina.

Sargent says even with the virus, the bald eagle population in Georgia is strong and HPAI should not significantly slow the species’ rebound.

Despite the easy transmission of HPAI, the risk is very minimal for humans. To date, no human infections from the virus has been documented in the U.S., according to the CDC.

To help prevent the spread of HPAI, state officials say the public should avoid handling sick or dead birds, keep pets away from sick or dead birds, and report dead or sick eagles to DNR at 478-994-1438.