Bird flu outbreak in Norway of concern

Largest outbreak of avian flu threatens endangered species

bird flu

Photo: Øyvind Zahl Arntzen / NTB
Vadsø, Finnmark was at the epicenter of the bird flu epidemic this summer with 15,000 dead birds found.

Marit Fosse
Geneva

In recent months, researchers raised the alarm concerning the largest ever outbreak of bird flu in Norwegian history. The flu that is currently affecting Norwegian wild birds is particularly deadly for gray gulls and kittiwakes. The situation is so dramatic that the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research will not venture to predict further developments, according to NTB, the Norwegian news agency.

The number of dead birds is highest mostly among wild birds in northern Norway, especially along the coast of Finnmark. The gray gull and kittiwake are endangered species.

“What worries those of us who work with seabirds is that these species breed in colonies. If the virus gets inside a colony, it can have enormously negative consequences,” Børge Moe, a representative of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, told the NTB.

In his opinion, this is probably what happened in late summer, when large numbers of dead wild birds were found near bird cliffs along the Finnmark coast.

The ongoing outbreak started as early as 2020, with some sporadic registrations. In 2021, there were slightly more cases, with some species in Europe and a couple of species in Norway affected.

As with coronaviruses and influenza, viruses that affect humans, avian flu mutates and will come in new variants. Moe is disturbed that the highly pathogenic virus particularly affects endangered species, and he fears the consequences. There is definitely a risk of the virus spreading, and it is feared that it will spread to new populations of ticks.

At the same time, there was a relatively long period from the time this virus was detected in Harstad until its appearance in Finnmark in late July/early August.

Moe further points out that it is difficult to predict whether the peak of the outbreak has been reached or whether it will spread. He believes that new virus variants could spread to other species.

“As with the coronavirus pandemic, the virus changes slightly along the way, and you get mutations and virus variants that affect some species more than others. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned in recent years, it’s that there’s a large portion of chance involved,” he said.

Bird flu is caused by influenza virus A. It is a contagious viral disease that can also be transmitted to animal species other than birds.According to the World Health Organization, human infections are primarily acquired through direct contact with infected animals or contaminated environments. These viruses have not acquired the ability of sustained transmission among humans, and this is the main reason why the Norwegian health authorities are warning people not to touch the dead birds.

Avian influenza has been detected in samples from dead birds along the entire coast and all the way to Svalbard. The Norwegian Food Safety Authority website emphasizes the importance of removing dead birds to reduce the spread of infection. It is also important to notify the authorities so that they can monitor the spread of the virus.

The Norwegian Food Safety Authority and local authorities will decide who will take care of the cleanup. Owing to the risk of infection, it is imperative that those who handle dead or sick birds wear proper protective equipment with a face mask, goggles, and disposable gloves. The birds must be stored in a safe manner until collection and destruction at incineration plants or at facilities approved for the treatment of high-risk waste.

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE.

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Marit Fosse

Marit Fosse trained as an economist from Norwegian school of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen (Norges Handelshøyskole NHH) and then earned a doctorate in social sciences. She is the author of several books. Nansen: Explorer and Humanitarian, co-authored with John Fox, was translated into Russian/Armenian/French. In addition, Fosse is the editor of International Diplomat/Diva International in Geneva, a magazine set up 20 years ago for diplomats and persons working in the international organizations in Geneva but also elsewhere. In her free time, Fosse is an accomplished painter.