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Bird flu outbreak leaves Swedish coast littered with carcasses

A record-breaking bird flu outbreak has hit the Swedish west coast, leaving hundreds of wild birds dead. Local authorities are just starting to take action despite the problem existing all summer.

GOTHENBURG, Sweden (CN) — Tourists wandering along Sweden’s west coast this summer may come across more than a fresh ocean breeze and the delicious smell of cooked fish on shore.

Swedes and visitors alike have stumbled upon many dead birds in recent months and see others behaving in unnatural ways. A record-breaking outbreak of bird flu on the west coast is a major threat to wild bird populations.

“It is justified to talk about a disaster,” Anders Wirdheim, chairman of the city of Halmstad's ornithological association, told local broadcaster SVT, after hundreds of dead northern gannets had been discovered in a short amount of time. Most of them were infected.

“If [the outbreak] continues, and it seems like it will, then the situation is serious,” Wirdheim said, adding “if 7,000 birds disappear in a colony, it is fair to call it a catastrophe. That is the scenario we see right now, with a risk of this becoming a recurring event.”

According to researchers, the current outbreak is an entirely new scenario in Sweden. While the bird flu can occur all year round, it usually slows during summer months and peaks in the winter season in Sweden.

It is the second year in a row that the virus is spreading rapidly in the summer.

“What we are seeing now, with the continued spread of infection and high morbidity and mortality among wild birds in the middle of summer, is a completely new scenario. There are therefore many indications that the coming season will also be problematic, with an increased risk of outbreaks also in domestic birds,” Karl Ståhl, state epizootiologist at the Swedish National Veterinary Institute, told SVT.

Birds infected with the flu virus display unnatural behavior before they die. Observers have witnessed terminally ill swans circling around themselves and geese flying irrationally up and down.

The bird flu reaches the brain and causes severe inflammation. When it hits the central nervous system, it causes the bird to lose control of its body.

Sweden’s Public Health Agency says the current type of bird flu is not dangerous for humans, as there is a very low chance the virus will jump into people.

Other than northern gannets, guillemots and razorbills are among birds registered dead with the virus.

In the southern archipelago of Sweden’s second-largest city, Gothenburg, local hunter Tommy Berntsson shoots sick birds to “end their suffering.”

He has tried to figure out where to throw the infected dead birds out, but local authorities have not provided him a clear answer when he calls them.

“I've just been thrown around, no one wants to take responsibility,” Berntsson said and added, “I don't think the authorities take the issue seriously.”

An anonymous island resident told SVT that the lack of guidance on how to handle the dead birds forced her to find her own solution, as it is not allowed to throw the birds out as normal waste. She said that she collected and drove the dead birds out to dump them on islands and islets.

According to Wirdheim, a critical part of fighting the outbreak is removing dead birds from the shores. It is important that people use gloves when handling the birds and put them in plastic bags for destruction, he said.

The city of Gothenburg admits to a lack of clarity regarding procedures for how disposal of the birds should be handled. Authorities are currently discussing how to manage the dead birds, but said they will start collecting the dead birds in the archipelago.

“We will prioritize it with the resources we have available,” said Morgan Davidsson, the municipality's sector chief.

The Swedish Agency for Agriculture is scheduled to present its recommendation to handle the situation to Swedish municipalities on Thursday.

Europe as a whole is experiencing an unprecedented extensive outbreak of bird flu, according to the Swedish National Veterinary Institute.

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