Avian flu hits penguins in Antarctica. Scientists wonder how virus reached the icy region
Antarctica may be too cold and remote but this has not, apparently, helped prevent pigeons living in the icy region to contract avian flu, which is basically transmitted when birds get in contact with infected animals or contaminated secretions and surfaces.
In a study published in the journal of American Society for Microbiology mBio May 6, a group of international scientists described a new strain of avian flu that they discovered in the Antarctic after conducting tests on Adélie penguins.
For their study, the researchers collected specimen from 301 penguins as well as blood from 270 penguins from January to February 2013 and found avian influenza virus (AIV) in eight of the penguins two of which were chicks. They also noted that the viruses they found were of the H11N2 strain.
"Using virus culture, molecular analysis, full genome sequencing, and serology of samples from Adélie penguins in Antarctica, we confirmed infection by H11N2 subtype AIVs," the researchers wrote.
While the viruses were found to be similar to each other, the genetic segment was distinct and different from other known animal and human flu viruses. Study researcher Aeron Hurt, from the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Center for Reference and Research on Influenza in Australia, said that the newly discovered bird flu virus was different from other viruses that have already been detected.
"All of the genes were highly distinct from contemporary AIVs circulating in other continents in either the Northern or Southern Hemisphere," Hurt said.
It appears that the virus does not make the penguins ill and 16 percent of the 207 blood samples were found to have influenza A antibodies. Results of an experiment the researchers conducted on a group of ferrets also suggest that the new strain of avian flu is exclusive to birds and won't likely infect mammals.
How did the virus reach the icy region? Hurt opined that migratory birds may be responsible for the virus reaching Antarctica.
"Probably, in the region we were sampling, the Antarctic peninsula, it's most likely that migratory birds are travel ling down from North and South America," Hurt said. He and his colleagues estimate that the virus has been evolving the past five to eight decades.