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An international team of researchers has discovered the presence of a strain of avian influenza among populations of Adelie penguins in Antarctica. This new strain of the avian influenza has been identified as H11N2. It has been characterized by Aeron Hurt, a member of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, as being “unlike anything else detected in the world,” as it is “highly distinct from contemporary AIVs (Avian Influenza Virus) circulating in other continents in either the Northern or Southern Hemisphere.”
This discovery was recently published in mBio, an online journal for the American Society for Microbiology, and has raised a number of questions in the scientific community, such as the possible methods of transmission that could have brought this strain of avian influenza to such a remote continent.
The study that detected this avian influenza in the Adelie penguins of Antarctica was conducted through swabbing 301 penguins, and drawing blood from 270 others. In this sample of approximately 300 penguins, eight were found to be carrying the H11N2 strain of the avian influenza, six adult penguins and two chicks. This represents approximately 2.6 percent of the total, but it nonetheless is an important finding, as it may lend insight into the question of which animals or ecosystems are preserving the virus in such a hostile environment. Also, approximately 16 percent of the sample (43 of the 270 penguins from whom blood was drawn) was found to contain antibodies for the H11N2 virus, likely indicating that the virus has been present in the population of Adelie penguins for some length of time.
The discovery of the avian influenza among Antarctic penguins may also lead to important breakthroughs on the question of whether or not viruses can be crypto-preserved through the winter, a question that could have significant overlap with other scientific fields.
There has already been a theory posited which might explain how the H11N2 virus was transmitted to the Antarctic region. Due to both the relatively small incidence of the virus in the sample population, and the region from which the sample size was drawn. Hurt has posited that the introduction of the virus into the Antarctic ecosystem was conducted by migratory birds from South America, such as the yellow-billed pintail duck. This conclusion has been supported by the fact that distant similarities between the H11N2 strain of the virus and South American AIVs, primarily from Brazil and Chile, do in fact exist.
Perhaps the most pressing question, though, is whether or not this particular strain of the avian influenza poses a threat to the human population. This worry is prompted by experience, as the H7N9 and H5N1 strains of the avian influenza have caused death to both humans and animals over the past two years, predominantly in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, an outbreak of the H10N8 strain on a California poultry farm in February of 2014 caused a number or foreign markets to bar poultry imports from the state of California altogether, causing significant economic dislocation.
Fortunately, the presence of the avian influenza among populations of Antarctic penguins does not seem to herald any such economic dislocation. Hurt has said that the H11N2 strain likely does not pose a threat to wildlife health and that it is “unlikely that humans are likely to be infected by this particular virus.”
By: Nicholas Grabe