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Antarctic Wildlife Health Network (AWHN)

The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP), the Committee for Environment Protection (CEP) and the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) are concerned about the heightened risk of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) outbreaks in Antarctica in the 2023/24 season and the devastating impacts it could have on the region’s unique wildlife.

A paper published today by SCAR Antarctic Wildlife Health Network (AWHN) explains that heightened risk.

avian flu

To date, there have been no identified cases of HPAI in Antarctic wildlife. However, based on the rapid global spread and extensive outbreaks of HPAI virus H5N1 clade throughout South America, the AWHN has identified that the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), the Scotia Arc and the Antarctic Peninsula are at high risk of the virus arriving this austral summer, coinciding with seabird and pinniped migration south from the Americas through their natural migration process.

Dr Meagan Dewar, Chair of the Antarctic Wildlife Health Network, said: “The arrival of HPAI in the region would have devasting impact on many wildlife species in the region and could lead to catastrophic breeding failure and mortality events”. 

Based on the recent risk assessment published today, animal species including skuas, gulls, fur seals and sea lions are at highest risk of HPAI infection, followed by penguins, sheathbills, giant petrels, and birds of prey found on subantarctic islands, such as Caracara. Species such as skuas, gulls, giant petrels and sheathbills are also considered to be the most likely species to transport the virus to the region.

Since the arrival of HPAI to South America, it has travelled over 6000 km in as little as 3 months, along the Pacific coast of South America, to its southernmost tip off Tierra del Fuego, causing substantial outbreaks throughout Chile and Peru. To date, over 500,000 seabirds and over 20,000 sea lions have died due to HPAI H5N1 in Peru and Chile alone. More recently, the virus has spread to the Atlantic coast of Argentina, with cases detected in sea lions along the coast, from Tierra del Fuego to Buenos Aires. “The arrival of HPAI south of the Beagle Channel and in Tierra del Fuego significantly increases the risk of HPAI arriving in the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic Peninsula during the 2023/24 Austral Summer,” said Dr Dewar.

The risk assessment highlights that “ongoing and enhanced surveillance and monitoring of the situation is critical to not only to track the spread of HPAI in the region but also to understand and quantify its impacts on Antarctic wildlife populations.” The recommendations are in line with recommendations from the World Organisation for Animal Health, Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organisation. It is noted that this work is in line with a request made by the Committee on Environmental Protection (CEP) which in the final report if its XXV meeting, “requests that SCAR provide updates to the CEP on the potential impacts of HPAI to native birds and mammals in Antarctica.”

Based on the likely impacts of HPAI on wildlife and the risks to human health, should it present in Antarctica, the SCAR Antarctic Wildlife Health Network has worked for over a year with COMNAP, the CEP, IAATO, and the wider Antarctic community through workshops and consultation to develop detailed recommendations and guidelines in preparation for a likely outbreak, given the heightened risk.

Dr Dewar continued:

“We cannot stop the natural migration of species, but we can be vigilant and look for signs that the virus has arrived in Antarctic wildlife and monitor its movement and spread, and its impact.

“This new paper provides guidelines that focus on the protection of human life, preventing inadvertent spread of disease through human activity and learning more about this virus and its impact on wildlife. This includes recommendations as to how researchers and tourists should act when around bird and mammal colonies. In addition, with enhanced surveillance and monitoring, the AWHN hope to measure HPAI impact on Antarctic wildlife health this season and next.”

Dewar et al 2023. Biological Risk Assessment of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in the Southern Ocean.

For further information or media enquiries in relation to the risk assessment please contact Dr Meagan Dewar, Chair of the Antarctic Wildlife Health Network This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  

For enquiries from the SCAR, COMNAP or IAATO Secretariats or the CEP please contact: