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Bird flu found on mainland Antarctica for first time

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Credit: Spain's Science Ministry

Bird flu has been found on mainland Antarctica for the first time, the Spanish government announced on Sunday, as scientists expressed concern about the possibility of an “ecological disaster.”

The first 2 confirmed cases were found in samples taken from dead skuas near Primavera, a base owned by Argentina on the Antarctic Peninsula. The tests were later carried out by Spanish scientists.

“Analysis has conclusively shown that the birds were infected with the H5 subtype of avian influenza and at least one of the dead birds had the highly pathogenic virus,” Spain’s Ministry of Science said in a statement.

“This discovery shows for the first time that highly pathogenic avian influenza has reached Antarctica despite the distance and natural barriers that separates it from other continents,” the ministry said. “This finding could also explain the bird deaths recorded during the Antarctic summer.”

Bird flu was first detected in the Antarctic region in October 2023, when brown skuas tested positive in South Georgia, more than 1,000 miles (1,700 kilometers) from mainland Antarctica. It later spread to elephant and fur seals, as well as penguins on the nearby Falkland Islands.

Scientists have long worried about a bird flu outbreak in Antarctica, where the virus could rip through colonies of marine mammals and birds, including penguins.

“If the virus does start to cause mass mortality events across penguin colonies, it could signal one of the largest ecological disasters of modern times,” scientists wrote in a study published last year.

The global spread of H5N1 clade – and the recent spread to a growing number of mammals – has raised concern about the possibility of a future variant which could lead to human-to-human transmission. So far, only a few human cases have been reported after contact with infected birds.

In South America, thousands of sea lions and other marine mammals have died of H5N1 bird flu.

File photo: Base Primavera in Antarctica (Credit: Carlos E. Jimenez Abad)

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