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Avian flu: the H5N1 virus arrived in the Galapagos National Park

Published on October 24, 2023

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The first confirmed cases of avian flu in Galapagos birds were recorded on September 19, 2023. In Peru, around half a million birds died from this cause inside and outside protected areas, according to information from that country. Scientists fear that these numbers will increase due to the new period of bird migration that has already begun.

The avian flu, which has been hitting marine species off the coasts of South America since November 2022, has arrived in the Galapagos National Park in Ecuador.

Less than a month ago, on September 19, 2023, the Galapagos National Park Directorate reported the first positive results for the presence of the H5N1 virus in three of five birds that had died on several islands in the national park.

“It was only a matter of time before it arrived in the Galapagos, both due to the visits of seabirds that have very wide flight ranges and move from the coasts of Ecuador and Peru, and due to the arrival of migratory birds, since we are just in the season of migration of species from north to south,” commented scientist Jaime Chaves, from the Department of Biology at San Francisco State University, in the United States.

For the first time, the presence of the H5N1 virus has been detected in the Galapagos. Photo: Rashid Cruz.

After confirmation that the H5N1 virus, which causes bird flu, had reached the birds of the Galapagos Islands, national park authorities took several measures to reduce the risk of dispersion of the virus. Among the first actions, the places where affected species were detected were closed to visitors. Genovesa Island and Punta Pitt, on San Cristóbal Island, were closed to the public; in addition, visits to Punta Suárez and Punta Cevallos, on the island of Española, were suspended as a preventive measure.

This virus has caused a huge impact on the population of wild seabirds in several countries on the continent. According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), outbreaks of H5N1 virus have been detected in domestic, farm and wild birds, as well as in mammals in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, United States, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.

The spread of avian flu has also reached some mammals, mainly sea lions in South America and red foxes and skunks in North America.

In Peru, thousands of wild birds have died from bird flu. Photo: Andina Agency.

Researcher Pablo Plaza, from the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet), points out that the beginning of the bird migration season can cause a “recombination of the avian flu virus,” and in the presence of the El Niño phenomenon, the situation for marine fauna is worrying.

What is being done in Galapagos?

The presence of bird flu in the Galapagos has also increased security measures for visitors. The reserve authorities have asked tour operators to implement a rigorous process of disinfecting footwear and clothing when going up and down to land visit sites, as well as disinfecting common outdoor areas and boats used for the disembarkation of passengers.

There is still a lot of movement of people from the mainland to the Galapagos – says Chaves – therefore, it is very difficult to control all the visitations in the places where the birds are, therefore, the possibilities of repeating what has happened in other places are very high.

Avian flu is affecting wild birds in the Galapagos National Reserve. Photo: Tui de Roi.

Chaves is also concerned about the close contact that exists in the Galapagos between people and wild animals. “Contact between humans and wild animals is very close and there is a risk that there could be a mutation in the virus that ends up affecting people. At the moment, it is only affecting seabirds, with the highest impact on red-footed boobies. There are also frigates and other species of seabirds, but we still do not have positive cases in mammals, which would be the next event that should be avoided.”

It is wise that sites where there are sources of infection remain isolated – says Chaves – so that humans do not come into contact with possible sources of infection. The boats, he points out, also serve as landing ports for some birds, so they must have special handling. “It is not difficult to see boats near the islands with a lot of birds resting on top of the boat and defecating there. We must try to avoid that contact.”

The researcher mentions that now that the virus has been detected in Galapagos, the genome sequence of the virus must be carried out “to know the relationship with populations from other places and see if they are indeed the same (viruses) that are, for example, on a poultry farm or if they are the same ones that are in Peru.”

The researcher explains that it is necessary to generate contagion maps to understand how this virus is moving, where it is resting and what the changes are at the genetic level in each of the populations, as well as the mutations.

The wild birds of the Galapagos are at risk due to the presence of avian flu. Photo: Wildlife Waved Albatross / Vanessa Green.

“The sequencing of these lineages throughout South America will give us a much more complex and complete idea of ​​how this virus is evolving and understand what steps are being taken at the genetic level that allows the virus to be much more aggressive or jump between species,” adds Chaves. “If we know that this virus has a high mutation capacity that can affect mammals, as happened in Peru, we can see if that mutation is already present in the Galapagos. We must have much more aggressive research and control plans to prevent this from happening, knowing that this mutation is already circulating in mammals.”

The numbers of bird flu in Peru

The research “Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) strongly affects wild birds in Peru”, recently published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation, indicates that until March 2023 the death of 100,485 birds of 24 species was recorded in the marine protected natural areas of Peru. The study carried out by Víctor Gamarra-Toledo and Pablo Plaza, among other researchers, explains the consequences that this virus has had on the marine wildlife – birds and mammals – of the Peruvian coasts.

“The number of bird species and individuals affected by this disease in Peru is of conservation concern, due to the severe effect of this virus on these populations and the ecosystem services they provide,” the authors of the study point out.

Specialized personnel find a sea lion possibly infected with the H5N1 virus. Photo: Sernanp.

The H5N1 virus wiped out at least 20% of the pelican population that lives in protected marine areas in Peru, says Víctor Gamarra-Toledo, co-author of the study and researcher at the Museum of Natural History of the National University of San Augustine of Arequipa.

Gamarra-Toledo also mentions that these are underestimated figures since they correspond only to protected areas. “If you review the Ministry of Health database, we are talking about more or less half a million dead birds.”

A review of the data published in the Avian Influenza Room of the Ministry of Health of Peru provides information thru October of this year with data from the National Service of Protected Natural Areas (Sernanp), the National Forestry and Wildlife Service (Serfor) and of the National Agri-Food Health and Quality Service (Senasa), the three institutions that monitor the impact of avian flu in Peru.

According to these data, 277,474 birds have died in protected natural areas; while on the beaches outside the protected areas the figure reaches 61,630. On the other hand, on the Guano islands and surrounding areas the deaths are counted at 225,076. In total the loss of wild birds exceeds half a million individuals.

Thousands of birds died on the coast of Peru from bird flu. Photo: Sernanp.

“What is happening is a cause for concern, especially because the bird migration period has already begun, to which is added the presence of the El Niño Phenomenon. We do not know what the repercussions of this new stage will be,” says Gamarra-Toledo. “This is moving quickly. In Chile the number of dead penguins has exceeded the numbers in Peru,” she adds.

Pablo Plaza, from Conicet, refers to historical records to talk about the impact of the El Niño Phenomenon on marine wildlife. “Historical records mention severe impacts on bird colonies, especially guano birds. In the case of Peru, during the El Niño phenomena of 1982-83 and 1996-97, the scientific literature mentions severe impacts of more or less a 40% to 50% reduction in some bird species, such as the Humboldt penguin. And now we not only have El Niño, but also bird flu.”

Avian flu in sea lions in Argentina

On August 10th, the National Agri-Food Health and Quality Service (Senasa) in Argentina confirmed the first case of the presence of the H5N1 virus in single-haired sea lions (Otaria flavescens) in Tierra del Fuego, near Río Grande. Days later, positive cases were confirmed in wolves of the same species in the provinces of Río Negro, Santa Cruz, Buenos Aires and Chubut. The virus has also been found in an individual fur seal (Artocephalus australis).

By September 11th, there was already the first positive case of avian flu in an elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) in the Punta Tombo Natural Reserve, in Chubut. Of 28 evaluations that were carried out, 17 were positive, reports Senasa of Argentina.

Dozens of sea lions have died in Argentina from bird flu. Photo: Senasa Argentina.

“East of the Andes, in Argentina and Uruguay, bird mortality was not so great. The same thing happened with the sea lions, as in these two countries mortality has not been so great until now,” says Plaza.

However, the expert mentions that there are still many unknowns to be resolved, especially because the virus has moved very quickly between countries. “In less than a month it arrived from Tierra del Fuego, in Argentina, to Uruguay.”

The biggest problem is when it reaches places of high biodiversity – says the expert – such as the Galapagos, in Ecuador, or the Valdés Peninsula, in Argentina, where many species congregate and can be catastrophic.

Plaza points out that since the outbreak in Argentina and Uruguay is still in progress, the dimensions of the impact cannot be known, however, he clarifies that there has been a high mortality in sea lions.

Avian flu also affected elephant seals. Photo: PNoe / WCS.

“We must prevent this pathogen from spreading to other regions of South America and Antarctica, where many susceptible species live and need to be preserved. All over the world it must be addressed as a new threat to the survival of several bird species,” says Plaza.

“It seems to me that at a biogeographic level, let’s say in South America – the expert continues – it is very important to pay attention to the endemic birds of the Humboldt Current that have shown a worrying mortality rate. It could be that the ecological and environmental characteristics of the Humboldt Current could be related to this high mortality. We must see what happens from November and December with the migration of birds.”

This report was originally published in Mongabay Latam. It has been copyedited for clarity.


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