The UK's Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) announced on Thursday that bird flu has been detected in mammals in the sub-Antarctic for the first time, raising concerns that the virus could spread and threaten large wildlife populations in the region.
Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HIAP) has been detected in elephants and fur seals on South Georgia Island, a UK overseas territory in the South Atlantic Ocean, APHA said. It was first suspected last year among mammals in the region.
“As Antarctica is a unique and special place of biodiversity, it is sad and worrying to see the spread of disease to mammals in the region,” said Professor Ian Brown, APHA's Director of Scientific Services. Mammals may be at risk.
The term subantarctic refers to an island region north of Antarctica.
APHA said the data suggest there is no widespread adaptation of the virus, there is no high risk to humans, and the risk of human infection is very low.
South Georgia, located about 1,000 kilometers southeast of the Falkland Islands and accessible only by ship, has some of the most monitored seabird colonies in the world.
H5N1 was first suspected on an island off the northwest coast of South Georgia in October after several skuas died. Data from infected birds suggests the virus may have been introduced by migrating birds from South America, the agency said.
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