Alaska polar bear becomes first to die from bird flu

Alaska polar bear becomes first to die from bird flu

An Alaskan polar bear has become the first of its species to reportedly die from avian influenza, also known as HBN1, after the disease was first detected in the US in January of 2022.

It’s believed that the animal had been feasting on carcasses of dead birds that had contracted the disease, State Veterinarian Dr Bob Gerlach told the Alaska Beacon. Its body was discovered in Alaska’s North Slope Borough, near Utqiagvik, in October. The death marks the first of its kind worldwide.

Speaking to the newspaper, the official said, “This is the first polar bear case reported, for anywhere.” He subsequently reported the death to the World Organisation for Animal Health. He added that the case has received attention in other Arctic nations with polar bear populations.

Officials tested the animal’s remains on December 6, and confirmed it had contracted the virus the same day. Other species in the state have also died from the disease, including red foxes and a brown bear, according to data from the state veterinarian’s office.

Thousands of cases of the disease were found across the US in domestic poultry and wild birds two years ago. The same strain of the virus found in the US is currently spreading throughout Europe and Asia.

It’s unknown if other polar bears have died from the disease. Dr Gerlach told the newspaper that the scientific community is dependent on biologists conducting surveillance, which can be difficult to monitor in remote parts of the arctic.

Polar bears normally hunt and eat seals they find on sea ice, but they don’t need to ingest infected birds in order to contract the disease, as did the Alaskan mammal. The virus can be maintained in the environment, especially one that is cold, Dr Gerlach told the outlet.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, polar bears are currently classified as vulnerable, meaning they are facing a high risk of extinction. There are roughly 22,000 to 31,000 of the mammals in the wild. They typically are found in Canada, Alaska, Russia and Norway.

In November, researchers in the UK determined that the virus “could signal one of the largest ecological disasters of modern times,” if it begins to cause mass mortalities in penguin colonies. Officials within regions home to the birds are currently monitoring mortality rates.

The state veterinarian’s office is advising owners of domestic poultry to take steps to prevent contact between wild and domestic birds. The risk to humans from the current strain is relatively low, the agency stated.