Bird flu has been detected in mammals in the sub-Antarctic region for the first time, the British Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) announced on Thursday, raising fears that the virus could spread and threaten significant wildlife populations in the region.
APHA said highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) was detected in elephants and fur seals on South Georgia Island, a British territory in the South Atlantic Ocean. APHA has been testing mammals in the region for bird flu since the disease was first suspected last year.
“As Antarctica is a unique and special biodiversity hotspot, it is sad and worrying to see this disease spreading to mammals in the region,” said Professor Ian Brown, Director of Science Services for Antarctica. APHA, the largest population of seabirds and marine mammals could be put at risk.
The Subantarctic region is the region north of Antarctica and includes many islands.
APHA said 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, is home to some of the most closely monitored seabird colonies in the world.
The H5N1 virus was first suspected in October after several brown skuas died on an island off the northwest coast of South Georgia. The agency said data on infected birds indicated the virus may have been introduced by the movement of migratory birds from South America.
Ms Brown said the samples would be shared with the agency's international partners to help efforts to combat the virus, but warned there were uncertainties about how the virus was contracted and spread.
Last year, bird flu spread across Europe, the United States, Japan and South America, killing thousands of birds and mammals.
Millions of farm animals have been spared the spread of the highly contagious virus in recent years.
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