Dr Diana Bell, of UEA's School of Biological Sciences, says the discovery that avian flu was responsible for the death of three rare civet cats in Cuc Phuong National Park in Vietnam, raises important questions about the range of wildlife species which could now be at risk from this virus.
"Vietnam and the other Asian countries chronically infected with avian flu are biodiversity hotspots rich in species, many only occuring in this region," says Dr Bell, whose team has been working with the Vietnamese government, the World Health Organisation and the University of Hong Kong to confirm the cause of death in the endangered Owston's palm civets.
"The focus so far has been on poultry and human health, and there has been no screening of mammals in that region. The discovery of avian flu in a new family of mammals highlights the possibility that the virus may be capable of infecting other mammal species."
The flu virus is already known to be capable of infecting a number of bird species but this raises important questions about the susceptibility of mammals.
Scott Roberton is technical advisor to the Owston Civet Programme in Cuc Phuong National Park and a member of the UEA research team working in collaboration with UHK, WHO and the Vietnamese government. He says the source of the infection has not been identified.
A total of 57 deaths and 112 confirmed cases in humans have been reported to the WHO, leading to fears of an influenza pandemic. Some 80 per cent of these cases have been reported in Vietnam.