Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds

Avian Influenza (HPAI) outbreak along the coast of the Western Cape

A serious outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) is currently affecting endangered Cape cormorants along the coast of the Western Cape. In the worst-affected colonies, hundreds of birds have already died from the disease. HPAI is a highly contagious viral disease of birds with no curative or preventative treatment. SANCCOB, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, CapeNature, SANParks, West Coast District Municipality, Bergrivier Local Municipality, the Robben Island Museum, Western Cape Veterinary Services, BirdLife South Africa, Dyer Island Conservation Trust, The Owl Orphanage St. Helena Bay, Dwarskersbos Snake Rescue, and local veterinarians are collaborating to monitor and manage the situation.

The H5N1 strain of HPAI virus was detected in wild birds in the Western Cape in May 2021, mainly affecting gulls. The first Cape cormorants were only diagnosed with this disease in mid-September and cases have increased very rapidly over the last week. The colonies that have been affected the worst are those on Dyer Island and near Velddrif. Careful surveillance is being done wherever Cape cormorants congregate. Mitigation measures in progress include the safe removal of carcasses and sick birds. Treating affected birds is futile and poses a serious risk of disease spread. Therefore, sick birds are euthanized.

The signs of avian influenza in seabirds can range from tame behaviour or weakness to muscle twitches and seizures. Abnormal numbers of sick birds can be reported to your local conservation authority or state veterinarian. Avian influenza poses a very low health risk to humans, but people can carry the virus on their hands and clothes. Therefore, do not handle suspected cases if you will have contact with other birds. If handling is necessary, wear disposable gloves and face protection.

The Minister of Local Government, Environmental Affairs and Development Planning, Anton Bredell, is urging the public to avoid the area and in particular not to collect sick or dead birds. “It is critical to prevent the spread of the disease. This means people must not attempt to assist or transport any sick birds, even to take them to rehabilitation centres and veterinarians as this could spread the disease. At the moment it is critical to keep a controlled environment.”

Due to the pathogenicity of the virus, we must assume that all individual birds may be carriers; therefore best practice is to quarantine these birds whilst samples are sent for laboratory testing. Supporting this initiative not only aids our response with infected seabirds but also helps us decrease the risk of spreading the virus, and protects the African penguin chicks and other seabirds admitted during this time. Once testing has been conducted, negative individuals will be transferred to SANCCOB’s facility.

SANCCOB has requested assistance from its partner organisation, OSRL, to prepare a quarantine facility in the event that other seabird species require rehabilitation. Due to the pathogenicity of the virus, we must assume that all individual birds may be carriers; therefore best practice is to quarantine these birds whilst samples are sent for laboratory testing.

The OSRL facility in Durbanville has been made available by the OSRL South African team, for SANCCOB to use as a temporary measure. At this time of year, it is common for African penguin chicks to be abandoned as their parents undergo their annual moult; hence we fully expect that these penguin chicks will be rescued by the conservation authorities and transferred to the OSRL Seabird Quarantine Facility. Once testing has been conducted, negative individuals will be transferred to SANCCOB’s facility.

SANCCOB has issued a formal letter to the conservation managing authorities informing them of SANCCOB’s contingency plan, reassuring them that any seabirds that require veterinary or rehabilitative care can be sent to the temporary facility, without posing a risk to healthy seabirds.

The Disaster Management Centre urges the public to be vigilant and report unusual mortalities or abnormal numbers of sick birds to their local conservation authority or state veterinarian. Contact details are available here 

Additional information sheets for dealing with Avian Influenza:

October 14, 2021

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