Avian flu decimates wildlife on South America’s Pacific coast
Santiago/Lima/Quito, Apr 19 (EFE).- The Pacific beaches of South America have been transformed in recent weeks into cemeteries for thousands of sea lions, penguins, pelicans, and other wildlife fallen victim to avian flu.
In Chile, where the first infected wild bird was detected in December, the illness had claimed the lives of 1,535 sea lions and 730 Humboldt penguins by the end of last month.
Peruvian authorities estimate that at least 5,000 South American sea lions – representing 5 percent of the species – have succumbed to bird flu.
“There is no evidence yet that indicates the virus can be transmitted between individuals of the sea lion species or any mammalian species, so it is possible to speculate that, probably, these events have happened because of infection of the sea lions upon being in environments where the viral load is very high due to the presence of the virus in wild birds,” Christopher Hamilton-West, a specialist in veterinary epidemiology at the University of Chile, told EFE.
In the southern Chilean city of Valdivia, more than 250 black-necked swans, or 15 percent of the species population, died of bird flu.
Peru’s National Forest and Wildlife Service, Serfor, says that the number of pelicans inhabiting the country’s coasts has declined by nearly 40 percent since the avian flu outbreak began.
“This virus has evolved in recent decades and can maintain itself in circulation in some species of wild birds, without causing severe illness and high levels of mortality,” Hamilton-West said.
“During the last few months in the epidemic registered in Central and South America, perhaps the most affected species as far as mortality levels are the pelicans and the seagulls,” he said.
In Ecuador, though more than 1.2 million birds have died or been slaughtered amid outbreaks at industrial-scale chicken farms, the Ministry of Environment, Water, and Ecological Transition told EFE that there is no evidence of the virus spreading to sea lions.
Paolo Amaya, a biologist at Cesar Vallejo University in Peru, said that bird flu is affecting mammals that have been weakened by a lack of food as a result of the heating of coastal waters by El Niño.
The situation is “unprecedented,” according to Hamilton-West, as there has been no previous instance of the spread to South America of a “highly pathogenic” avian flu virus of Eurasian origin.
“We don’t know whether it will stop circulating in the region when the migratory birds return to North America or if it will find endemic wild avian species in South America that can act as a reservoir,” he said. “Nor do we know if these intercontinental movements (from Eurasia to the Americas) will be recurring events.”
To contain the virus, authorities must remove or destroy the bodies of infected birds and animals “with the appropriate personal protection gear and following biosecurity protocols,” Hamilton-West said.
In the more than two decades bird flu has been in circulation, nearly 900 humans have contracted the virus, according to figures from the World Health Organization (WHO). EFE mfm-fgg-pb/dr