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The role of birds in the ecology of West Nile virus in Europe and Africa.

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Kimron Veterinary Institute, Beit Dagan 50250, Israel.


Surveys on wild birds conducted during the last two decades in Europe, notably Poland and the Czech Republic, to determine their infection rate with WN virus have revealed endemic foci of infection. Some species of seropositive birds were nonmigrators while others were hatchlings of migrating species. Persistently infected avian reservoirs are potential sources of viruses for mosquitoes that multiply in the temperate European zone in hot, wet summers. In the past, evidence for geographical circulation of WN viruses was based on antigenic analysis of strains from different countries while more recent epidemiological studies have relied on analysis of nucleotide sequences of the envelope gene. With the reappearance of epidemic WN fever in European countries, interest has been focused once again on the African origin of the causal agent carried by migrating wild birds. In some epidemics, isolates were made from human cases or mosquitoes and only serologic evidence for infection was available from domestic and wild bird populations. In this respect the unusual findings of anti-WN virus antibodies in a population of storks maintained in northern Germany could be interpreted as evidence for local infection. The unique susceptibility of young domestic geese in Israel in 1997-2000 to WN virus and the isolation of similar strains from migrating White storks in Israel and Egypt suggest that the recent isolates are more pathogenic for certain avain species and that migrating birds do play a crucial role in geographical spread of the virus. Knowledge of the routes taken by birds migrating between Africa and Europe will therefore help in selecting sites where attempts to isolate viruses will be most fruitful. The appearance of the disease in western European equine populations (Italy and France) requires that other birds and their migratory routes be investigated once more. It remains to be determined whether the European endemic foci of WN virus are in themselves sources of infection for other birds that migrate across Europe and do not necessarily reach sub-Saharan Africa. If this is the case it will be necessary to define the strategies for detection of virus overwintering in the European temperate climate.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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