(CTN News) – British experts confirm bird flu has been detected in the Antarctica region for the first time, raising fears that the deadly virus may pose a threat to local penguins and other species as well.
In the past few weeks, scientists have been concerned that the worst outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) ever experienced might reach Antarctica, one of the most important breeding grounds for birds.
According to the British Antarctic Survey, its staff took samples of brown skua seabirds after they died on Bird Island in South Georgia, the British overseas territory east of the Southern tip of South America and north of Antarctica’s main landmass.
On Monday, the U.K.’s Polar Research Institute announced in a statement that the tests had been sent to Britain and had come back positive.
There is a strong likelihood that the virus was brought by birds returning from their migration to South America, where there has been a huge number of bird flu cases in recent years, according to the study.
There is an enhanced biosecurity measure in place for visitors to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and scientific field work involving birds in the islands has been halted, according to the statement.
Since 1996, when the virus first emerged, there have been regular outbreaks of bird flu everywhere in the world.
As of mid-2021, much larger outbreaks have started spreading southward to previously untouched areas including South America, resulting in mass deaths among wild birds and the culling of tens of millions of birds today.
The news of Bird Flu is devastating
The spread of bird flu to the Antarctica region was described by Michelle Wille, a bird flu expert at the University of Melbourne, as “devastating news.”
It is possible that the situation could change rapidly in the near future,” she wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
As a result, Ian Brown, head of virology at the U.K.’s Animal and Plant Health Agency, warned last week that there was a danger of migrating birds spreading the virus from South America to the Antarctic islands and then onto the main landmass of the continent.
There is concern that this could pose a “significant threat” to birds limited to Antarctica, such as penguins.
Penguins, for example, that have never been exposed to the virus would not have any prior immunity, making them potentially more vulnerable.
Furthermore, the Animal Plant Health Agency reported last week that preliminary research indicates that two seabird populations – northern gannets and shags – are immune to bird flu.
Humans rarely contract bird flu, but when they do, they usually do so through direct contact with an infected bird.
This month, a two-year-old girl in Cambodia died of bird flu, the third death in the country this year.
Additionally, the virus has been detected in a growing number of mammals, raising the possibility that it may mutate into a more transmissible strain.