Deadly bird flu spreads

There seems to be no halting the deadly outbreak of bird flu off the coast of Lüderitz.

14 March 2019 | Local News

JANA-MARI SMITH

The deadly bird flu virus that has wreaked havoc on the vulnerable African penguin population on Halifax Island off Lüderitz has spread to a nearby island, killing dozens more.

Scientists based at Lüderitz last week confirmed that the deadly virus had spread to Ichaboe Island, 40 km north of Halifax.

About 30 dead adult penguins have been found on Ichaboe Island since last week, adding to the confirmed death toll of more than 370 on Halifax Island since December.

In total, it is estimated that more than 500 adult penguins have died since the outbreak was first detected in December.

All carcasses are burnt by the ministry of fisheries and marine resources in an effort to contain the virus.

In addition, salt has been spread on wet guano patches in another attempt to thwart the virus, which thrives in damp and wet environments but doesn’t survive in a saline environment.

Scientists have expressed concern about the virus spreading to Ichaboe Island, where other vulnerable species breed alongside the penguins at this time of the year, including the critically endangered Cape gannet and the endangered Cape cormorant.

Last week, the fisheries ministry dispatched a research vessel to Halifax Island for the second time in two weeks to monitor the situation there.

Twenty-seven dead adult penguins were found on the island, in addition to three sick penguins. This indicated a slight reduction in the infection rate but was still a significant mortality, indicating the outbreak was not yet under control, Namibian Sun was told.

Worried observers say in addition to continued monitoring and incinerating carcasses as often as possible, it is crucial to keep sick birds away from breeding areas.

Further, strict biosafety protocols must be followed when people visit the island in order to prevent the virus from spreading to the mainland.

Local observers first noticed that something was wrong in mid-December, when dead penguins started washing up on beaches and were spotted in the sea by tour boat operators. Carcasses were then discovered on Halifax Island itself.

By mid-January it had become clear that the African penguins were facing a “major and unprecedented mortality event”, with at least 200 estimated to have died.

Ministry officials were accused of dragging their feet in identifying the cause of death, and it was only on 13 February that the ministry confirmed an outbreak of the deadly H5N8 strain of bird flu.

One of the most devastating aspects of the outbreak, according to scientists, is the impact of the disease on breeding birds.

Scientists say Halifax Island is one of the few African penguin sites where numbers had been increasing over the last few years, and not declining as elsewhere.

Before the bird flu outbreak, the island was home to about 7 000 adult penguins, including roughly 1 400 breeding pairs.

It is suspected that most of the dead birds were breeding birds, which could be disastrous for the local population as the birds only start breeding at five years of age and are monogamous.

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