Authorities warn of bird flu outbreak

VIRUS ALARM: The H5N8 strain of bird flu has been detected among Boulders Beach's penguins.Picture: Gary van Wyk

Several cases of bird flu in the penguin colony at Boulders have been confirmed by state veterinary services.

SANParks spokeswoman Merle Collins said the virus posed a “ very low risk” to humans, but is a real threat to domestic poultry”.

So far one tern and two penguins from Boulders have come back positive for H5N8. The colony will remain open for now to visitors but they are asked to stay on boardwalks and change their shoes and clothes if they plan to visit other seabird colonies or poultry farms, to stop the virus spreading.

Ms Collins said the park was monitoring the situation closely and had taken several precautions:

* With the exception of visitors on Boulders Beach boardwalk, nobody may access the main breeding colo-
ny.

* In instances where staff need to go off boardwalks to collect injured birds or hats, camera lens, or caps dropped by visitors, they will limit their access to essential work and then sterilise their boots afterwards – gumboots have been issued and are easier to clean than the normal boot.

* Monitoring routes used for moult/nest counts have been reviewed to ensure that staff and penguin monitors do not walk through the main breeding colony.

Ms Collins said the Western Cape Veterinary Services, CapeNature,
SANParks, the national Department of Environmental Affairs, the City of Cape Town, The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) and other seabird rehabilitation centres and private veterinarians were working together to monitor the situation and do further testing.

“The Western Cape is most affected. The virus is spread from bird to bird, by contaminated bird faeces and other body excretions, and by handling sick birds.

“Even though the virus is unlikely to infect humans, precautions should nevertheless be taken. Gloves, shoes, clothes, and other protective gear should be worn if handling birds,” said Ms Collins.

“Any equipment including vehicles and protective clothing that could possibly be contaminated should be sterilised.”

While “highly pathogenic to chickens and other poultry”, the virus’s impact on wild seabirds was not well understood, she said.