Avian Cholera is the most important infectious disease affecting wild North American waterfowl. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada has just awarded Carleton University Professor Mark Forbes and a team of researchers more than half a million dollars over the next three yearsto study this bacterial disease in Arctic Breeding waterfowl.
Inuit have not seen this disease in the Arctic previously. With all of the concern about avian influenza, which also kills waterfowl and can transmit to humans but which is a viral disease related to H1N1, this research is timely.
“Avian cholera can be a swift and deadly killer: infected birds can die within a day or two,” points out Dr. Forbes. “Birds that survive are expected to transmit the disease to other birds. It is also expected that transmission events occur across bird species, which is troubling given that more than 190 bird species have been shown to harbor avian cholera. It is vitally important to understand how this disease is transmitted best if we want to predict its impact in naïve populations and its origin and spread geographically”. “It is possible that wetlands during the arctic summer act as suitable reservoirs for the disease and heighten local epidemics”, says Forbes.
The focal species of interest, the common Eider, is hunted for food, and its eggs and featherdown are also collected. Ongoing dieoffs in the Arctic would pose a risk to viability of breeding populations and have major impact for people from Canadian and other northern communities that rely on those birds for their livelihood.
Grant Gilchrist, a lead co-investigator on this project and Research Scientist with Environment Canada, will travel to Canada’s Arctic with a team of researchers for two months each summer to study Arctic breeding common eiders. Gilchrist and his collaborators have studied this species extensively, before any outbreaks. As such, baseline data on survival and productivity are available before the cholera established. “This provides our team with a unique opportunity to observe the impact of the disease on a breeding population and avian community”, say Dr. Forbes. “Our research will be invaluable to the government officials for its communications value alone: that is, reporting other national and international sites experiencing dieoffs or known outbreaks of cholera.”
The research team is strengthened greatly with Dr. Catherine Soos who is studying serotypes and strains of avian cholera (Environment Canada, University of Saskatchewan), Dr. Joel Bêty an expert in waterfowl biology (University of Québec à Rimouski) Dr. Oliver Love who is bringing advanced stress physiology and immunometrics to the team: (University of Windsor) and Dr. Sebastien Descamps: an expert in avian demography (University Tromso, Norway).
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