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Researchers have verified the initial instances of avian influenza on the main continent of Antarctica.
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Researchers have verified the initial instances of avian influenza on the main continent of Antarctica.

According to officials, bird flu has been confirmed to have reached the mainland of Antarctica for the first time.

On Friday, the H5N1 virus was discovered in two deceased scavenging birds known as skuas near Primavera Base, which is a scientific research station operated by Argentina on the Antarctic peninsula.

Data from the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research indicates that there have been additional reports of possible cases in brown skuas, south polar skuas, and kelp gulls in Hope Bay, located on the Antarctic peninsula.

According to a report from the Spanish government on Sunday, this finding is the first evidence that the highly contagious bird flu virus has made its way to Antarctica, despite the geographical separation and natural obstacles between it and other continents.

These are the first confirmed cases on the continent itself, which shows the virus is spreading in the region, most likely via migratory birds. This H5N1 outbreak is thought to have killed millions of wild birds globally since 2021, and has spread to every continent except Oceania.

Last October, avian flu was recorded on sub-Antarctic islands, spreading to the broader Antarctic area. The virus was initially identified on the British overseas territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, located 1,000 miles (1,600km) from Antarctica. It was also discovered in the Falkland Islands, which are situated 600 miles northwest of South Georgia.

The red buildings of a research station on a peninsula with icy water in Antarctica

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At first, the virus was observed in avian species like gulls, skuas, and terns. However, it has also been detected in other birds such as albatross, penguins, and southern fulmars. It has also affected animals in the Antarctic region, resulting in large numbers of elephant seals and fur seals dying. The virus has also been rapidly spreading among wildlife populations in the Arctic. In December, it was verified that the first polar bear had succumbed to H5N1.

Matthew Dryden, an expert from the UK Health Security Agency, has stated that there have been numerous recent accounts of highly contagious avian flu impacting various species in the Antarctic during this particular season. He also noted that previous instances may have gone unreported due to the challenges of obtaining samples from the wildlife in the region.

Argentinian researchers discovered deceased birds from mainland Antarctica and transported them to scientists at the Spanish Antarctic base on Deception Island, who were conducting research for the Centro de Biología Molecular Severo Ochoa in Madrid.

Antonio Alcamí, a researcher from the Spanish National Research Council who works at the Centro de Biología Molecular Severo Ochoa CSIC and is stationed at the Spanish Antarctic base, expressed concern about the potential transmission of the virus to other species, such as penguins. He emphasized the need for monitoring in order to assess the situation. He also mentioned that the close proximity of skuas creates many potential opportunities for transmission. However, further observation is needed to confirm this possibility.

Earlier epidemics in South Africa, Chile, and Argentina have proven that penguins are prone to the virus. With the arrival of H5N1 in South America, over 500,000 seabirds have perished from the illness, particularly penguins, pelicans, and boobies.

In a pre-print paper published in November of last year, researchers stated that if the virus begins to result in widespread death among penguin colonies, it could indicate a major ecological catastrophe in current times.

According to Diana Bell, an esteemed professor in conservation biology at the University of East Anglia, the announcement is not unexpected, as it has been previously recorded in birds and elephant seals on Antarctic islands. It is probable that the penguins in that area will also become infected.

According to Dryden, it is crucial to practice biosecurity measures in order to prevent human exposure to the virus. While it is uncommon, HPAI has the potential to infect humans but it typically requires close and extended contact.

Although some wildlife areas were shut down to prevent the spread of the virus, Dryden stated that there are no further actions that can be taken to contain it. The outbreak will have to run its course naturally.

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Source: theguardian.com