Epidemiology and dynamics of a newly emergent poxvirus infection in wild birds

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Zoology


In 2007 the first cases of a new form of infectious disease - a kind of pox - were reported from common birds in the UK. While pox is found in many birds, this usually occurs in low frequency and often with rather minor effects. The new form of pox occurs at higher frequency, and results in large infected lesions which have been found to cause death in wild birds, but otherwise very little is known about how the disease is transmitted and what effects it has on birds. This new form of pox seems to infect tits, in particular the great tit, at high frequency. In May 2010, this new disease appeared in a long-term study population of the great tit near Oxford, and has increased in frequency to infect almost 10% of great tits by November 2010. It is rare to study the emergence of a novel disease from the first cases, and this research aims both to understand the effect of this disease on birds, but also to study the factors determining its spread through two adjacent populations of tits, as well as more broadly through the UK. In order to do so we will:
(1) Catch birds repeatedly to study rates of infection and the progression of the disease in infected birds;
(2) Integrate information from captures with long-term study data to understand factors predisposing birds to disease;
(3) Collate information from reports from the public concerning the distribution and spread of this disease;
(4) Use post-mortem examination and molecular genetic tools to identify the pox virus responsible for these infections;
(5) Issue requests to the public to collect further data on the spread of this disease in 2011.

Infectious diseases can represent serious threats to wildlife; our aim with this research is both to assess the threat that this new disease poses to common UK garden birds, as well as to develop an understanding of the way in which it spreads through populations. Such knowledge is vital if we were to design interventions at a later stage.

Planned Impact

The main impacts of this project will be a deeper understanding of the infection dynamics of a novel pox virus infection in wild birds, and in depth assessment of the effects this infection has on individual survival and reproductive output in common UK bird species. The results will be of considerable interest to the public, many of whom are concerned and alarmed when they see affected birds with grotesque lesions, as occurs in this disease.

At present it is too early to know whether this form of avian pox may have implications for the health of the populations that it infects, but if this is the case, the work carried out here will prove invaluable in determining the life-history stages at which these impacts are felt, and also may indicate possible routes of transmission. Hence, the results of this project may be of considerable benefit to ornithologists, conservation biologists and government who may need to understand the population impacts of this novel infection.
Description The grant was funded to research a newly discovered viral disease infecting wild birds in the UK. We used the funding to analyse the origin of the disease, and its spread through the UK, as well as the effects of the disease on wild birds, in terms of survival and reproductive success. We showed that the disease was first seen in the UK in 2008 and has spread through most of England since, and that it has a serious effect on survival of infected birds. However, rather low infection rates suggest that it is not likely to be a major threat to populations under current conditions.
Exploitation Route They provide key baseline epidemiological information against which future outbreaks - in this country and elsewhere - can be assessed.
Sectors Education,Environment

URL http://www.ufaw.org.uk/gbhi.php
Description Media interest (Pox virus study) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact This was media activity related to the simultaneous publication of three papers funded by the NERC Urgency grant in Nov 2012. ZSL logs of media activity estimated that this reached 16 million people, equivalent to an advertising cost of £300K.

Generated sustained public interest in wild bird diseases
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
Description Media-generated request for info (pox study) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact This was a report of first cases of new disease in wild birds, and a request to the public to provide information based on sighting of garden birds. The ZSL media logs estimate that this was disseminated on >300 media sources (e.g. three national BBC radio stations, most broadsheet newspapers and websites) and reached >20 million audience. There was a notable increase in reports of diseased wild birds afterwards, with >750 individuals contacting ZSL in both 2011 and 2012 to report diseased birds in gardens.

The activity clearly increased the awareness of emergent diseases in wildlife.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
Description Talk to local natural history societies (8) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk sparked considerable interest in current research activities on birds

None noted
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011,2012,2013,2014,2015,2016