White-Tailed Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) Die-Off Due to Infection with Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Virus, Subtype H5N8, in Germany
In contrast to previous incursions of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAIV) H5 viruses, H5N8 clade 126.96.36.199b viruses caused numerous cases of lethal infections in white-tailed sea eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) affecting mainly young eagles (younger than five years of age) in Germany during winter 2016/2017. Until April 2017, 17 HPAIV H5N8-positive white-tailed sea eagles had been detected (three found alive and 14 carcasses) by real-time RT-PCR and partial nucleotide sequence analyses. Severe neurological clinical signs were noticed which were corroborated by immunohistopathology revealing mild to moderate, oligo- to multifocal necrotizing virus-induced polioencephalitis. Lethal lead (Pb) concentrations, a main factor of mortality in sea eagles in previous years, could be ruled out by atomic absorption spectrometry. HPAIV H5 clade 188.8.131.52b reportedly is the first highly pathogenic influenza virus known to induce fatal disease in European white-tailed see eagles. This virus strain may become a new health threat to a highly protected species across its distribution range in Eurasia. Positive cloacal swabs suggest that eagles can spread the virus with their faeces.