, Volume 135, Issue 1-2, pp 101-114

Influenza virus subtypes in aquatic birds of eastern Germany

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We report the findings of a 12-year surveillance study (1977–89) of avian influenza A viruses in eastern Germany. Viruses were isolated directly from feral ducks (n=236) and other wild birds (n=89); from domestic ducks (n=735) living on a single farm; and from white Pekin ducks (n=193) used as sentinels for populations of wild aquatic birds; mainly sea birds. The efficiency of virus isolation was 9.9% overall, with considerable variability noted among species: 8.7% in wild ducks, 0.9% in other feral birds and 38% in Pekin ducks. Use of sentinel ducks in wild pelagic bird colonies improved virus detection rates fivefold, suggesting that this approach is advantageous in ecological studies. Among the 40 different combinations of hemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA) subtypes we identified, H6N1 predominated (23.6% for all avian species), followed by H4N6 (11%). Among individual species, the frequency profiles favored H2N3 (20.8%) and H4N6 (20.3%) in feral ducks; H7N7 (22.3%), H4N6 (24.4%) and H2N3 (10.4%) in Pekin ducks used as sentinels; and H6N1 (34.8%) and H6N6 (15.1%) in domestic ducks maintained on a single farm. By relying on sentinel birds for serological assays, it was possible to trace an “influenza season” in feral swan populations, beginning in August and continuing through the winter months. Comparison of subtype distribution of influenza viruses for Europe and North American showed significant differences. This supports the fact of two geographically distinct gene pools of influenza viruses in birds connected with their distinct flyways of each hemisphere. The high frequency of isolation of H2 influenza viruses is of considerable interest to those interested in the recycling of this subtype in humans. Similarly the frequent isolation of H7N7 influenza viruses raises concern about reservoirs of potentially pathogenic influenza virus for domestic poultry. Our results confirm the existence of a vast reservoir of influenza A viruses in European aquatic birds, which possesses sufficient diversity to account for strains that infect lower animals and humans.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Herbert Sinnecker who died in 1991 at the age of 61. He was the Director of the Institute of Viral Zoonosis in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). It was Herbert Sinnecker's forsight and understanding of the need to resolve the origin of human and animal influenza pandemics that initiated the studies described in this article. He developed novel epidemiological and ecological methods that permitted definition of the influenza virus gene pool in central Europe. The unification of Germany made it possible to publish this article; otherwise, the studies encouraged and organized by H. Sinnecker would have been lost to the scientific community.