Antibody prevalence to avian influenza virus subtypes H5, H7 and H9 in falcons, captive and wild birds, United Arab Emirates, 2003-2006

Background: Avian influenza viruses (AIV) may cause enormous economic losses in the poultry industry and sporadically severe disease in humans. Falconry is a tradition of great importance in the Arabian Peninsula. Falcons may catch AIV through contact with infected quarry species.

Objectives: Falcons together with other bird species are the focus of this seroprevalence study, carried out on sera collected in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). AIV with the haemagglutinin subtypes H5, H7 and possibly H9 may infect humans.

Methods: We investigated the antibody prevalence to these subtypes in falcons and other birds by haemagglutination inhibition test. 617 sera of falcons and 429 sera of 46 wild/captive bird species were tested.

Results: From the falcons, only one was positive for H5 antibodies (0.2%), none contained antibodies to H7, but 78 had antibodies to H9 (13.2%). Regarding other birds, eight were positive for antibodies to H5 (2.1%), none had antibodies to H7, but 55 sera from 17 species contained antibodies to H9 (14.4%).

Conclusions: In contrast to H5 and H7 infections, H9N2 is widespread worldwide. Its ability to reassort, thereby creating possibly pathogenic strains for humans, should remind us of the potential risk that close contact with birds entails.