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Keywords:

  • Avian influenza;
  • ducks;
  • H5N1;
  • waterfowl

Abstract Wild ducks are the main reservoir of influenza A viruses that can be transmitted to domestic poultry and mammals, including humans. Of the 16 hemagglutinin (HA) subtypes of influenza A viruses, only the H5 and H7 subtypes cause highly pathogenic (HP) influenza in the natural hosts. Several duck species are naturally resistant to HP Asian H5N1 influenza viruses. These duck species can shed and spread virus from both the respiratory and intestinal tracts while showing few or no disease signs. While the HP Asian H5N1 viruses are 100% lethal for chickens and other gallinaceous poultry, the absence of disease signs in some duck species has led to the concept that ducks are the “Trojan horses” of H5N1 in their surreptitious spread of virus. An important unresolved issue is whether the HP H5N1 viruses are maintained in the wild duck population of the world. Here, we review the ecology and pathobiology of ducks infected with influenza A viruses and ducks’ role in the maintenance and spread of HP H5N1 viruses. We also identify the key questions about the role of ducks that must be resolved in order to understand the emergence and control of pandemic influenza. It is generally accepted that wild duck species can spread HP H5N1 viruses, but there is insufficient evidence to show that ducks maintain these viruses and transfer them from one generation to the next.