Concern for penguins after deadly avian flu reaches Antarctica

Tens of millions of birds have died around the world due to the H5N1 outbreak, prompting concerns for Antarctica's native species.

A highly virulent strain of avian flu has been detected on mainland Antarctica for the first time. The presence of H5N1 was reported with 100 per cent certainty in two skuas, a type of large predatory seabird.

This strain of avian influenza has resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of birds around the world, and Australia now remains the only continent to remain free of the disease. Entire island populations of seabirds have been decimated by its spread.

Concerningly, the strain appears to be zoonotic, meaning it can be transmitted to humans, and there have been confirmed mammal to mammal transmissions of the disease. There have been hundreds of human infections, with recent cases reported in Cambodia in January.

Adult emperor penguins and dead chicks in Antarctica.
There are concerns for Antarctica's emperor penguins after H5N1 was discovered in the bodies of two seabirds on mainland Antarctica. Source: Getty (File)

The virus has been reported close to Antarctica, but not on the mainland until now. In January, scientists confirmed the presence of H5N1 in two species of penguin on the Falklands Islands which is considered a sub-Antarctic region near the tip of Argentina. It was initially discovered in the bodies of 35 dead and dying adults and chicks.

Why there is concern about penguin infections

Hundreds of thousands of penguins gather in close proximity to shelter from the cold on mainland Antarctica, meaning there are concerns the virus could be quickly transmitted between them, Reuters reported.

Emperor penguins have already been under increased pressure because of climate change. Thousands of chicks died because of extreme loss of sea ice in 2022, and some researchers have predicted they will be extinct by the end of the century.

The discovery of H5N1 was made by researchers from Spain's Higher Council for Scientific Investigation, which announced its finding on Sunday. The samples were collected by Argentine scientists operating near the Primavera Antarctic base which is located in a bay where 90 per cent of the icy continent’s species live.

“The samples were obtained using maximum protective measures to avoid transmission of the virus to people,” CSIC said in a statement. “Once the samples were taken, the viruses present in them were immediately inactivated to allow them to be studied safely.”

Men in PPE carrying the bodies of thousands of dead birds on the UK's Farne Islands in 2022 after an avian influenza outbreak.
Covered from head to toe in PPE, rangers collected the bodies of thousands of dead birds on the UK's Farne Islands in 2022 after an avian influenza outbreak. Source: Owen Humphreys/PA

What happens if H5N1 reaches Australia?

If H5N1 was to infect Australian poultry, it could impact the supply of poultry meat and eggs. In 2023, Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases expert at Australian National University and Canberra Hospital, said unease about the spread of H5N1 into Australia was warranted, but it wasn't time to panic.

In May, the Invasive Species Council questioned whether Australia was equipped to stop the disease spreading. Since the country’s native birds lack immunity to avian influenza because they have not been exposed to the disease, there are concerns it could lead to extinctions.

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