Bird flu spreads in Antarctica; in a startling development, experts on highly contagious diseases have warned about the further spread of bird flu in the Antarctic region, posing a significant threat to its unique wildlife. This highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), also known as bird flu, has already killed hundreds of millions of birds globally in recent years.
The recent detection of the H5 strain of bird flu on October 8 in a brown skua on Bird Island, part of the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, marks a worrying turn of events. This report comes from OFFLU, a collaborative organization of experts from the World Organization of Animal Health and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
Concurrently, the virus has also been identified in fulmars and albatrosses in the nearby Falkland Islands. The presence of HPAI H5 in these remote southern regions is a cause for concern due to the potential risk to isolated wildlife populations, including penguins and seals, which have never been exposed to this virus. This development is particularly alarming as it marks the first instance where Bird flu spreads in Antarctica, posing a new and significant threat to the region’s unique and isolated ecosystems.
OFFLU’s report on Thursday suggests that the virus will likely spread further among Antarctic wildlife. This spread could affect the 48 species of birds and 26 species of marine mammals inhabiting the region. The report highlights the potential for high mortality rates due to the dense colonies of pinnipeds (seals) and birds, which facilitate virus transmission.
One of the theories for this spread is the migration of infected elephant seals from South America to South Georgia, where they could transmit the virus to other islands and further south to the Antarctic Peninsula.
The report also emphasizes the threat to the emperor penguin species, which is already considered near extinction. The spread of the virus to an emperor penguin colony could affect the entire population.
OFFLU has called for ongoing monitoring and surveillance of wildlife populations and the implementing of biosafety measures. These measures aim to reduce the risk of the virus spreading to new areas and decrease the risk of human infection.
The organization uses a biogeographical definition of the Antarctic region, which is broader than the Antarctic Treaty region, encompassing all ice shelves and based on the distribution of species and ecosystems. This expansive definition underlines the potential widespread impact of the bird flu spread in this fragile and unique environment.