Background: Very little is known regarding the persistence of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N1 viruses in aquatic environments in tropical countries, although environmental materials have been suggested to play a role as reservoirs and sources of transmission for H5N1 viruses.
Methodology/principal findings: The survival of HPAI H5N1 viruses in experimental aquatic biotopes (water, mud, aquatic flora and fauna) relevant to field conditions in Cambodia was investigated. Artificial aquatic biotopes, including simple ones containing only mud and water, and complex biotopes involving the presence of aquatic flora and fauna, were set up. They were experimentally contaminated with H5N1 virus. The persistence of HPAI H5N1 virus (local avian and human isolates) was determined by virus isolation in embryonated chicken eggs and by real-time reverse-polymerase chain reaction. Persistence of infectious virus did not exceed 4 days, and was only identified in rain water. No infectious virus particles were detected in pond and lake water or mud even when high inoculum doses were used. However, viral RNA persisted up to 20 days in rain water and 7 days in pond or lake water. Viral RNA was also detected in mud samples, up to 14 days post-contamination in several cases. Infectious virus and viral RNA was detected in few cases in the aquatic fauna and flora, especially in bivalves and labyrinth fish, although these organisms seemed to be mostly passive carriers of the virus rather than host allowing virus replication.
Conclusions/significance: Although several factors for the survival and persistence of HPAI viruses in the environment are still to be elucidated, and are particularly hard to control in laboratory conditions, our results, along with previous data, support the idea that environmental surveillance is of major relevance for avian influenza control programs.