“Unprecedented epidemic”

A devastating bird flu epidemic kills thousands of birds along the northern coast of France. Gulls and boobies are among the most affected species.

A madman killed by the bird.  Credit: La vie, la nature du Finistère / Facebook

A madman killed by the bird. Credit: La vie, la nature du Finistère / Facebook

Bird flu causes the death of thousands of protected seabirds in northern France, an unprecedented event in the country. The virus began to spread through wildlife late last spring, then spread devastatingly in the heart of summer, continuing to claim thousands of lives day after day. Brittany is one of the most affected regions, where, according to data from the DRAAF (Regional Directorate for Food, Agriculture and Forestry), the carcasses of 1,200 specimens were recovered on 1 September. Most birds, as reported to Telegram by Dr. Hervé Duvallet, coordinator of wildlife health monitoring at the French Office of Biodiversity (OFB), was killed by bird flu.

The species most affected at the moment are the gulls, terns and the magnificent gannets, the latter being infected mainly on the island of Rouzic, in the heart of the Sept-Îles national nature reserve. Photos shared in July by amateur photographer Michel Prat showed cliffs littered with dead birds, between couples still alive and abandoned nests. It was mostly the cubs who lost their lives, an entire generation wiped out by a horrible death, resulting in paralysis and agony that lasted up to 48 hours. Specialists used to deal with avian flu epidemics in autumn and winter, as environmental technician Hervé Duvallet explained to France Bleu, but this year there was an unexpected and extensive spread in mid-summer involving the breeding season, resulting in a massacre.

Bird flu spread across French farms last winter and prompted authorities to order the culling of tens of millions of heads. From there, the virus returned to wild birds, triggering the deadly epidemic that is decimating colonies of marine species. “In France, this is the first time such wild bird mortality has occurred. This happened at full hatch, when chicks are vulnerable and highly contaminating,” explained Dr. Anne Van De Wiele, coordinator of health actions at the French Office of Biodiversity. “We are in the midst of an avalanche of cases, it is a race against time. It is still difficult to measure the extent of damage done to the most endangered species. It will depend on the impact of the disease on breeding adults”, added the specialist. So far, thousands of carcasses of seagulls and boobies have been collected, 100% of them positive for the pathogen. In Brittany, terns (affected elsewhere) and skuas are unaffected. Fortunately, seals, exposed to potential contagion, are also negative. In Saint-Malo, a city that in recent days has been hit by waves capable of reaching the fourth floor of buildings, about 200 birds were found dead, mainly seagulls.

One of the main problems is that the virus continues to spread to inland areas as well, starting to lick wetlands with very high biodiversity. The impact on shorebirds and waterfowl that live in these delicate environments can be catastrophic. We are facing an unprecedented epidemic that still has no answer, as Dr. Duvallet. We are thinking about a possible evolution of the H5N1 avian virus strain, whose mutations would have also allowed the insane to be involved, hitherto spared by the infection. Health authorities are making every effort to monitor and contain the spread of the pathogen, for example by quickly removing carcasses, but it is currently not possible to determine what the course of infections will be. The operations are carried out by qualified personnel; in fact, it is recommended not to touch dead birds, knowing that in the past there have been cases of transmission of the avian virus to humans.

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