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South Africa: Avian disease detected at Cape Town penguin colony

African penguins gather to keep warm as others are fed sardines by staff at the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, Cape Town, Sept 20, 2012.   -  
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Schalk van Zuydam/AP

South Africa

Penguin colonies in South Africa are being closely monitored. The H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza was detected at the Boulders Penguin Colony Cape Town and South African officials have now raised concerns about the spread of the disease.

The black and white birds are one of the attractions in Western Cape, South Africa’s most developed tourism region. Veterinarians at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds are on the alert.

"At the moment we are talking about the Avian influenza which is a disease that affects a lot of birds but we have an outbreak of a more dangerous variant of the disease and that is the H5N1 high pathogenicity strain", clinical veterinarian David Roberts says. 

"It has been affecting sea birds in South Africa and other countries all over the world for the last year and we have had thousands of birds die. The penguins are not that badly affected but we have had a recent outbreak at the Boulders penguin colony and a few penguins have died there and that's what we are concerned about", he adds.

Environmental authorities said on September 16 that the H5N1 strain was similar to that detected last year among wild seabirds. If the outbreak is smaller, the protocol remains the same: identify, isolate and perfom tests on birds.

"For the last year we have lost over 20,000 birds, but just recently at the Boulders (Beach) National Park we have only lost 28 penguins", Roberts details. 

"It is a small outbreak in a community of about 3,000 penguins that live at this colony. Its not terrible there but we are monitoring the situation in case it gets worse."

Once sick birds are identified, they are euthanised and cremated in an attempt to reduce the spread of the disease.  Another concern is if the influenza spreads to commercial poultry.

Europe is facing the largest bird flu outbreak ever. In the Netherlands for example, more than 3,5 million chickens, ducks and other birds had to be culled. A lot of work is being done on a vaccine against the current, highly contagious, variant.

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