The Cold European Winter of 2005–2006 Assisted the Spread and Persistence of H5N1 Influenza Virus in Wild Birds
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In January 2006, a major cold spell affected Europe, coinciding with an increase of H5N1 influenza virus detected in wild birds, mostly dead mute swans, starting along the River Danube and the Mediterranean coast line. Subsequently H5N1 detections in wild birds were concentrated in central and western parts of Europe, reaching a peak in mid February. We tested the hypothesis that the geographic distribution of these H5N1 infections was modulated by the long-term wintering line, the 0°C isotherm marking the limit beyond which areas are largely unsuitable for wintering waterfowl. Given the particularly cold 2005–2006 European winter, we also considered the satellite-derived contemporary frost conditions. This brought us to select the long-term maximum rather than the mean January 0°C isotherm as the best approximation for the 2005–2006 wintering line. Our analysis shows that H5N1 detection sites were closer to the wintering line than would be expected by chance, even when the geographic distribution of water bird wintering sites was accounted for. We argue that partial frost conditions in water bodies are conducive to bird congregation, and this may have enhanced H5N1 transmission and local spread. Because the environmental virus load also would build up in these hot spots, H5N1 virus may have readily persisted during the spring, at least in cooler areas. We conclude that H5N1 introduction, spread, and persistence in Europe may have been enhanced by the cold 2005–2006 winter.