Suspected avian flu being investigated

State vet awaiting lab results
Otis Daniels_Finck
Swakopmund • [email protected]

Following a major outbreak of avian influenza in South Africa’s Western Cape a few months ago that killed almost 25 000 coastal seabirds, there is a distinct possibility that the disease is spreading to Namibia’s coastal birds too.

This alert was issued on social media by the Lüderitz Marine Research (LMR) on Friday after several reports over the last few weeks of sick, dying, or dead seabirds, including cormorants and terns, between Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. “Since [Thursday] there have been several disturbing reports of dead and dying Cape cormorants and some individuals of a few other species near the Bird Rock guano platform north of Walvis Bay,” said Jessica Kemper of the LMR environmental conservation organization.

According to her, typical symptoms of avian influenza in seabirds include tame or dazed behaviour, weakness, an inability to sit up or stand, twitching, seizures, and in some cases foam or mucus on the beak, or around the eyes. “Treating an infected bird is unfortunately futile and may contribute to the spread of the disease. Although avian influenza poses a very low health risk to humans, people can carry the virus on their hands and clothes and could transmit this highly contagious disease to other birds,” she warned. “Birds should therefore not be handled by the public.”

When contacted for comment, she told Erongo 24/7 that the state vet at Walvis Bay had collected samples of some of the dead birds and submitted them to a laboratory. “At this time, we do not know the cause of these recent mortalities. All fingers and toes crossed that it is not avian flu,” said Kemper. “Once we know, we’ll take it from there.”

She said that about three years ago, avian flue destroyed at least 600 penguins in the Lüderitz area and that penguins and cormorants do live near one another, and so may result in the spread of the flue from one species to the other. “The best we can do, if we learn that it is in fact, avian flu, is to try and contain it, and that is why people should avoid handling these sick birds because humans could transmit it to other birds, such as chickens,” she warned, stating that in SA a mass cull of poultry had to be done to contain the disease.

Naude Dreyer of Ocean Conservation Namibia told Erongo 24/7 that about 20% of the Cape cormorant population in South Africa was wiped out by the recent avian flu there. “The suspicion is that, if this does prove the be avian flu, it could have come from there,” he said.

According to him, local conservationists noticed dozens of dead birds on the beach near Bird Rock, and also made a video of some birds behaving strangely – displaying symptoms of possible avian flu. This information was sent to the scientists, who in turn alerted the vet. He said that while there were isolated cases of seabird deaths once in a while, the current amount of birds dying and acting sick, was a concern.