Unique Penguin Flu Virus Identified in Antarctica

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penguin fluA study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found a unique strain of bird flu in the Adelie penguins of Antarctica, which is now dubbed the penguin flu. It most closely resembles a strain called H3N8, which is a bird flu strain that dated back to the 1960s. Though it is not fatal or transmittable to people or other animals, researchers sought to find out how it was spread and how to contain it.

Avian Influenza (AI) is an infectious disease that is transmittable and though most do not, at least two strains of bird flu have been transferred to people. They cannot be transferred from one person to another, but can be obtained through contact with an infected bird. While each strain acts differently, and some strains are potentially fatal for birds and people, that is not the case with the newly discovered penguin flu. In fact, the Antarctic birds show no signs of illness. They do not appear to have flu-like symptoms and when researchers attempted to pass the penguin flu onto ferrets, it did not work, proving that it is a strain than cannot be passed on to mammals.

It was announced on Monday that a unique penguin flu virus was found in Antarctica. The study was led by Aeron Hurt from WHO’s Center for Flu Research in Melbourne, Australia. He sought to find out how the avian flu turned up on an isolated continent and how it continues to spread. The study as published in a recent edition of the journal American Society of Microbiology.

In January and February of 2013, Hurt and a team of researchers took samples from the windpipes and waste and reproductive fluid swabs of 301 Adelie penguins in Antarctica, from the areas of the Admiralty Bay and Rada Covadonga. They used the samples to test for the bird flu. They also took blood samples from 270 of them to identify the unique penguin flu virus.

The blood work indicated that 43 of the tested penguins had influenza A antibodies present in their blood. They also identified eight infected penguins, two chicks and six adults, with the H11N2 bird flu using a lab technique called reverse transcription-PCR. What they found is a unique strain, however, with qualities of several different strains. Researchers believe the viral infection was spread by migrating birds from North America and Eurasia, though seals could have also carried the virus to the remote continent. They also believe this particular flu strain has been evolving in Antarctica for four to eight decades.

Previous studies suggested that penguins carried the flu antibodies, but none have gone to this extent to actually visit the birds in their habitat and identify the exact virus strain. The findings leave researchers wondering if the unique penguin flu strain is exclusive to Antarctica or if migratory birds have spread the bird flu virus to other remote areas as well. Though the penguin flu virus is not a deadly strain, it is vital to keep it contained and avoid spreading it beyond Antarctica where it was first identified.

By Tracy Rose


Red Orbit
Discovery News