Boulders penguins catch avian flu

Three cases of avian flu have been found among penguins at the Boulders Penguin Colony in Simon’s Town.

The confirmed cases have spurred authorities to take action to prevent any further outbreaks, including limiting the handling of birds by staff and researchers.

Dr Laura Roberts, Department of Agriculture state veterinarian in the Western Cape, says there have been three confirmed cases in penguins (out of a population of 1700 penguins) and one in a swift tern.

This strain of avian influenza virus (H5N8 strain) has been detected in a range of wild seabirds, including swift, sandwich and common terns, as well as gannets.

This virus is a very low risk to humans, but is a real threat to domestic poultry.

“Penguins found sick will be treated if the disease is not deemed too far advanced. If they are too ill, they will most likely be euthanised for welfare reasons,” Roberts explains.

There is no treatment for the virus, Roberts says, but “endangered species may be treated supportively”.

Table Mountain National Park staff are monitoring the situation closely and have now implemented precautions, explains SANParks spokesperson Merle Collins.

“With the exception of visitors on Boulders Beach boardwalk, nobody may access the main breeding colony. In instances where staff need to go off boardwalks to collect injured birds or hats, camera lenses, caps etcetera dropped by visitors, they will limit their access to essential work and then sterilise their boots afterwards. Gumboots have been issued and are easier to clean than the normal boots. Monitoring routes used for moult/nest counts have been reviewed to ensure that staff and penguin monitors do not walk through the main breeding colony.”

Roberts adds: “Movement among the colony and handling of birds by staff and researchers will be kept to a minimum – this is to minimise the spread of virus by people and to minimise stress in the birds. This has to be balanced with the removal of dead birds, to ensure they are not a further source of virus.”

Various stakeholders – including government departments, seabird rehabilitation centres and private veterinarians – are working in close cooperation to monitor the situation and perform further testing, Collins adds. “The Western Cape is most affected. The virus is spread from bird to bird, by contaminated bird faeces and other body excretions, and by handling sick birds. Even though the virus is unlikely to infect humans, precautions should nevertheless be taken. Gloves, shoes, clothing and other protective gear should be worn if handling birds. Any equipment including vehicles and protective clothing that could possibly be contaminated should be sterilised.

“While the virus is highly pathogenic to chickens and other poultry, the impact on wild seabirds is not that well understood. Closing the colony to visitors is not justified at this stage.”

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