In 2020, the first Dutch West Nile virus (WNV) infected birds were detected through risk-targeted surveillance of songbirds. Retrospective testing of patients with unexplained neurological disease revealed human WNV infections in July and August 2020. Bird ringers are highly exposed to mosquito bites and possibly avian excrements during ringing activities. This study therefore investigates whether bird ringers are at higher risk of exposure to WNV and Usutu virus (USUV).
Dutch bird ringers were asked to provide a single serum sample (May – September 2021) and to fill out a survey. Sera were screened by protein microarray for presence of specific IgG against WNV and USUV non-structural protein 1 (NS1), followed by focus reduction virus neutralization tests (FRNT). Healthcare workers (2009–2010), the national immunity cohort (2016–2017) and blood donors (2021) were used as control groups without this occupational exposure.
The majority of the 157 participating bird ringers was male (132/157, 84%) and the median age was 62 years. Thirty-seven participants (37/157, 23.6%) showed WNV and USUV IgG microarray signals above background, compared to 6.4% (6/94) in the community cohort and 2.1% (2/96) in blood donors (p Discussion
The higher frequency of WNV and/or USUV IgG reactive bird ringers indicates increased flavivirus exposure compared to the general population, suggesting that individuals with high-exposure professions may be considered to complement existing surveillance systems. However, the complexity of serological interpretation in relation to location-specific exposure (including travel), and antibody cross-reactivity, remain a challenge when performing surveillance of emerging flaviviruses in low-prevalence settings.