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Bird flu spreading to mammals

Nearly 100 wild birds and mammals have been diagnosed with bird flu in Finland in the past two years, ranging from a swan in Hanko to an eagle in Lapland.

A white-tailed eagle and a crow on the coast off Loviisa, southeast Finland (file photo). Image: Juha Metso / AOP

Bird flu is proliferating in Finland and has begun spread from birds to mammals, say health wildlife officials.

So far, the disease has been diagnosed in two foxes, one otter and one lynx.

The worst outbreak of avian influenza so far was last year in in Janakkala, southwest Finland, where thousands of farmed pheasants with the infection had to be culled.

The Finnish Food Agency has found the highly pathogenic H5N1 and H5N8 viruses in wild bird samples.

Infections were found in nearly 70 wild birds last year, ranging from eagles and owls to various kinds of geese and swans. Most cases have been found along the south coast.

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A dead golden eagle chick in a nest in Posio, Lapland, in June 2021, along with the remains of other animals brought as food to the nest. Image: Jani Suua

So far this year, 11 cases have been confirmed in birds from Hanko in southernmost Finland to Posio in Lapland. However the actual number of cases is likely far higher.

According to Teemu Lehtiniemi, Director of Conservation and Research at Bird Life Finland, the number of avian influenza infections in Finland is considerably higher than the statistics indicate.

"The cases noted are just the tip of the iceberg. They are based on carcasses found by humans and sent in to be analysed," he noted.

According to Lehtiniemi, the majority of Finnish cases concern carcasses of large species such as swan, geese and birds of prey, as these are more likely to be submitted for testing. Smaller birds are not usually given the same attention.

"Most dead birds go unnoticed by humans and soon disappear into the mouths of predators and carnivores," he said.

The Food Agency warns people not to touch any wild birds, dead or alive, as the virus can infect humans in some rare cases. The UK reported its first such case last year. Pets should also be kept away from sick or dead birds or other animals, health officials say.