First announced last spring of the southern hemisphere, highly pathogenic avian influenza HPAI is now affecting five of the 14 species tested in South Georgia. A few suspected cases near the Antarctic Peninsula suggest that the disease is still spreading.
Following the confirmed cases of avian influenza in the Falkland Islands, suspected cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), with apparent symptoms in animals in South Georgia have now been confirmed. According to the latest press release from the British Antarctic Survey on January 11, five of the 14 species tested were carriers of HPAI H5N1. Elephant seals and fur seals are particularly affected. Among birds, antarctic skuas, kelp gulls and antarctic terns are affected. There are suspicions that giant petrels and snowy sheathbills have been too. However, there are still uncertainities for albatrosses and penguins.
These results come from the first samples taken following the first signs of the epidemic in the austral spring. At the time, the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and the UK Animal and Plant Health Agency sent a scientist to the area, inspecting colonies with the help of a Navy mission and a coastal patrol.
Today, the spread of the virus can be observed only to a limited extent. Scavenging birds are very active and traces disappear rapidly. Some sites have been closed to scientists and tourists. “It’s difficult now to access all the different places and fjords on the island. Since some have been closed to visitors, we no longer have regular information about them,” explains Mark Belchier, Director of Fisheries and Environment for the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands GSGSSI.
Still, two sites are regularly monitored. Bird Island, in the north-east of the archipelago, where a base is established since 1963, and King Edward Point next to the administrative centre at Grytviken.
“Although some sites appear to have been particularly affected, the level of mortality of species monitored such as fur seals, brown skuas and giant petrels has not exceeded the level of a bad year,” he adds. “It would appear that the virus is particularly threatening for fragile species such as wandering albatrosses, grey-headed albatrosses and black-browed albatrosses.”
A mission is currently underway to confirm (or deny) that the virus does not affect albatrosses. Jennifer Black, head of the Department for the Environment at the GSGSSI, is currently crossing the Atlantic to the archipelago. “This will give us the opportunity to access the most remote areas to potentially detect the virus in other species and better understand the general impact on animals”, adds Mark Belchier.
As previously reported by us, elephant seals are also affected. “There has always been mortality during reproduction, but this time it affects all the life stages,” explains the director. “The fur seals bredding season is in full swing now, and we saw high mortality among juveniles too.”
In Antarctica, suspicious cases have been detected in Antarctic jaegers on the South Orkney Islands, near the Orcadas station belonging to Argentina. The same applies to Heroína Island, at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. “To be honest, I’m surprised there haven’t been more reports from the Antarctic Peninsula,” he adds.
Le niveau d’alarme concernant la grippe aviaire en Amérique du Sud juste avant cet été austral était haut. “L’immunité contre ce virus est encore en cours de découverte”, nous explique Michelle Wille, chercheuse de l’Université de Melbourne, spécialiste du HPAI. Le principal espoir pour les animaux de l’Antarctique reste cependant l’immunité collective, afin qu’ils soient moins touchés lors d’un prochain épisode.
Camille Lin, PolarJournal
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