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More bird flu found in Antarctic penguins

AAP logoAAP 20/09/2016 By Tom Rabe

The discovery of a new strain of bird flu in Antarctic penguins has raised concerns the virus is reaching the frozen continent more often than previously thought, flown in by migratory birds.

Australian researchers helped uncover the new strain of avian influenza in the chinstrap penguin in 2015, finding striking similarities to a North American strain, which meant it had only been introduced to Antarctica recently.

The virus was first detected in Antarctica in 2013, but the discovery of the new strain has raised a red flag to the vulnerability of penguins to avian flu and its capacity to reach Antarctica.

Associate Professor Aeron Hurt, of the Melbourne-based Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, says scientists had previously thought viruses rarely reached Antarctica.

"What the most recent finding shows is that viruses do get down there more often than we thought and it's a red flag towards the future," Prof Hurt told AAP on Tuesday.

"Our concern with that is that there have been viruses over the last couple of years that have been quite deadly to certain types of birds."

Prof Hurt said the unique strain of influenza found in 2013 was also detected the following year, which may mean it can survive underneath the ice during the winter, resurfacing in the summer months as migrating penguins return.

Several migratory birds, including the Arctic tern and skua are thought to be the most likely culprits for delivering the viruses to Antarctica.

The birds can interact with poultry farms infected with avian influenza in North and South America before returning to Antarctica and spreading the virus.

While the influenza hasn't made the penguins ill, the fact that the viruses have arrived in Antarctica worries the scientific community.

"The impact of a pathogenic influenza virus, one that causes death or severe illness in birds, would have a really devastating impact," Prof Hurt said.

Prof Hurt said understanding how avian influenza reached Antarctica helped provide more insight into how the virus moves around the world.

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