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Keywords:

  • avian influenza;
  • sentinel;
  • mallard duck;
  • surveillance;
  • molecular analysis

Summary

Dabbling ducks, particularly Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) have been frequently and consistently reported to play a pivotal role as a reservoir of low pathogenic avian influenza viruses (AIV). From October 2006 to November 2008, hand-raised Mallard ducks kept at a pond in an avifaunistically rich area of Southern Germany served as sentinel birds in the AIV surveillance programme in Germany. The pond was regularly visited by several species of dabbling ducks. A flock of sentinel birds, consisting of the same 16 individual birds during the whole study period, was regularly tested virologically and serologically for AIV infections. Swab samples were screened by RT-qPCR and, if positive, virus was isolated in embryonated chicken eggs. Serum samples were tested by the use of competitive ELISA and hemagglutinin inhibition (HI) assay. Sequences of full-length hemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA) genes were phylogenetically analysed. Four episodes of infections with Eurasian-type AIV occurred in August (H6N8), October/November (H3N2, H2N3) 2007, in January (H3N2) and September (H3N8) 2008. The HA and NA genes of the H3N2 viruses of October 2007 and January 2008 were almost identical rendering the possibility of a re-introduction of that virus from the environment of the sentinel flock highly likely. The HA of the H3N8 virus of September 2008 belonged to a different cluster. As a correlate of the humoral immune response, titres of nucleocapsid protein-specific antibodies fluctuated in correlation with the course of AIV infection episodes. However, no specific systemic response of hemagglutination inhibiting antibodies could be demonstrated even if homologous viral antigens were used. Besides being useful as early indicators for the circulation of influenza viruses in a specific region, the sentinel ducks also contributed to gaining insights into the ecobiology of AIV infection in aquatic wild birds.