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The geographical range of many arboviruses is expanding, with viruses of the genus Flavivirus comprising some of the most widely reported examples. Most concerning is the ability of these viruses to evolve rapidly to exploit new ecological niches, leading to large-scale disease outbreaks (Vazquez and others 2011).
Usutu virus (USUV) is a mosquito-borne flavivirus that illustrates this changing threat. When USUV was first isolated from mosquitoes (Culex univittatus) in South Africa in 1959 it was not associated with disease in animals or humans (Vazquez and others 2011). However, when USUV emerged in Austria in 2001 it caused seasonal epidemic mortality of blackbirds (Turdus merula) that continued into the summers of 2002 and 2003 (Chvala and others 2007). Subsequent spread of USUV associated with wild and captive bird mortality, has occurred in continental Europe, with a northward-range expansion to southwest Germany in 2011 (reviewed by Becker and others 2012). USUV has also been associated with human disease, confirming its zoonotic potential (reviewed by Vazquez and others 2011). This rapid spread, combined with the public and animal health implications, highlights the need for vigilance for this virus.
Mosquito species involved in USUV outbreaks in Europe are present in the UK (Medlock and others 2005) but minimal surveillance for USUV has been undertaken. Serological evidence for exposure to USUV in British birds was reported in 2001–2002 (Buckley and others 2003), but no virus was isolated and no associated bird mortality was reported. In a random sample of 160 bird brains collected …