The British Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) announced on Thursday that bird flu has been detected in mammals in sub-Antarctica for the first time. This raises fears that the virus could spread and threaten large numbers of wildlife in the area.
APHA said highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has been detected in elephant seals and fur seals on South Georgia Island, a British overseas territory in the South Atlantic. Since bird flu was first suspected last year, the authority tested mammals in the area for the disease.
“As Antarctica is such a unique and special biodiversity hotspot, it is sad and worrying to see disease spreading to mammals in the region,” said Professor Ian Brown, APHA's Director of Scientific Services. Mammals may be at risk.
Subantarctic refers to an area north of Antarctica that includes many islands.
According to APHA, the data suggest that 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 (620 miles) southeast of the Falkland Islands and accessible only by boat, has some of the best-monitored seabird colonies in the world.
Suspicion of H5N1 was first raised in October on an island off the northwest coast of South Georgia after several brown skuas died. The agency said data from infected birds suggested the virus may have been introduced by migratory birds from South America.
Brown said samples will be shared with the agency's international partners to support efforts to fight the virus, but cautioned that there is still uncertainty about how the virus infects and spreads.
Last year, bird flu spread across Europe, the United States, Japan and South America, killing thousands of birds and mammals.
In recent years, millions of farm animals have been destroyed to prevent the spread of the highly contagious virus.
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