JOHANNESBURG - The Department of Environmental Affairs on Friday said it had decided to halt all research activities involving the handling of seabirds in an effort to manage the spread of avian influenza.

Spokesperson Zolile Nqayi said the highly pathogenic H5N8 avian influenza was the same strain reported in the poultry industry in 2017.

Nqayi said the department was managing seabird colonies and stringent biosecurity measures were being implemented at the various rehabilitation centres, captive institutions and known breeding localities.

This was in an effort to tackle the spread of the H5N8 strain of the Avian Influenza that was affecting several seabird species, such as, Swift terns, African Penguins and Cape Gannets found across the country’s coastline.

“The Swift terns seem to be most affected than many other species. This strain of bird flu has not been found to affect people," said Nqayi.

“However, bird flu viruses can in rare cases cause infections in humans. Thus, strict biosecurity measures should be enforced and precautions should be taken when handling affected seabirds.”  

Nqayi said wild birds were carriers of the disease. In seabirds, the disease was spread through direct contact between healthy and infected birds.  

Most seabird species live in colonies, and may contract the disease from each other, or through indirect contact with contaminated equipment or other materials.

“The current outbreak adds further pressure to already declining seabird populations. Processes are in place to ensure extended surveillance of infected seabirds. The Department will exercise even stricter precautions and stringent biosecurity measures during the preparation of the voyage to Marion Island in April 2018,” said Nqayi.

The department is urging the public to exercise caution when approaching seabirds, especially those found along the beach as well as when visiting seabird colonies.

“Sick seabirds should be reported to the nearest local veterinarian, conservation authority or to permitted seabird rehabilitation centres,” said Nqayi.

African News Agency/ANA