As part of a global effort to understand the movement of HPAI-H5N1, which is a strain of avian influenza, EPIC sampled 25 waterbird species for avian influenza in the Caribbean region in 2008. Sampling took place on St. Martin, Anguilla, Antigua, St. Kitts, and Trinidad in cooperation with governmental veterinary and agricultural offices staff and local non‐governmental environmental groups.
Avian influenza is a disease that occurs naturally among wild aquatic birds, usually without harm; however, it can infect domestic chickens and other poultry and may cause death. Avian influenza, often called “bird flu” viruses, rarely infect people, however, there have been occasional outbreaks, therefore it is monitored worldwide due to both human health and agricultural risks.
The data collected by EPIC and our Caribbean partners in the region was shared in a global database used by veterinarians and biologists. Within this database, specialists can query which species were captured on which islands and examine specific groups of birds. If disease is found in birds from the region, it allows veterinarians and biologists to look more specifically at the disease and the birds that are affected to identify risks, trends, and solutions.
Since the Caribbean basin is a large and extensive bioregion that provides habitat for hundreds of species of resident birds and invaluable stop-over and over-wintering habitat for migratory birds, it is possible that the area plays a role in the global spread of bird flu. The vast wetlands and shorelines of Caribbean islands are the main breeding and foraging grounds for multiple species of resident ducks and shorebirds. It is also the primary over-wintering home to scores of neo-tropical shorebirds and ducks which annually migrate south from North America. In addition, the Caribbean has considerable agricultural assets, including backyard poultry systems, which could be at risk from bird flu. Infected poultry can cause economic losses and potentially local food insecurity, as well as a risk of human infection.
EPIC’s work on avian influenza supports both environmental and human health goals as well as safeguarding agriculture, which is important to the economy of many Caribbean island communities.