Penguins just can't quite catch a break these days

Tourists visiting Antarctica may be sounding the death knell for some of the penguins that live there.

A new study claims infectious diseases could be being spread by visitors to the continent, which is experiencing a massive increase in tourism.

Last year 37,000 people visited Antarctica, which can support up to 5,000 researchers. Twenty years ago, just 8,000 people visited Antarctica annually.

Antarctic species are thought to have much weaker immune systems due to their isolation - many only came into contact with humans for the first time around 200 years ago.

A study in the Polar Biology journal says avian flu, salmonella, E. coli and West Nile virus have all been seen in penguins in captivity over the last 50 years.

"The effects of both a growing tourism industry and research presence will not be without consequences," wrote Wray Grimaldi of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.

"Penguins are highly susceptible to infectious diseases."

Avian flu is thought to have killed hundreds of Gentoo penguins in separate outbreaks in 2006 and 2008.

A warming planet will see more migrating birds arrive in Antarctica, which could also cause the spread of infectious diseases.

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