Bird flu outbreak threatens marine mammals, birds and even humans

Nearly 9,000 sea lions, penguins, otters and small cetaceans have died in an avian flu outbreak battering Chile's north coast, the South American country's fisheries service said on Thursday.

Since the beginning of 2023, more than 7,600 sea lions, 1,186 Humboldt penguins – an endangered species that breeds only in Chile and Peru – and several otters, porpoises and dolphins have been found dead along the coast, the Sernapesca service said in a statement.  

The disease was present in 12 of Chile's 16 regions, it added. The service announced the activation of "surveillance protocols" along the coast, including burying affected animals in a bid to prevent further virus spread.  

Since late 2021, one of the worst global avian influenza outbreaks on record has seen tens of millions of poultry culled, mass wild bird deaths and a rising number of infections among mammals in several countries. 

Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Peru – with hundreds of sea lion deaths – have also reported cases.

Bird flu kills sea lions in Peru

Peru recorded its first instance of the virus in birds in the country's north in November last year. By February, the H5N1 strain spreading throughout the region had killed 63,000 birds.

"We have also recorded since mid-January the unusual death of many sea lions, so far we have about 716 dead sea lions in seven protected natural areas of the coast," said Roberto Gutierrez in February, head of surveillance of the National Service of Natural Protected Areas.

A seabird flying on the coast Brazil on May 23, 2023. /CFP
A seabird flying on the coast Brazil on May 23, 2023. /CFP

A seabird flying on the coast Brazil on May 23, 2023. /CFP

Brazil declares animal health emergency

Brazil, the world's largest chicken exporter, declared a nationwide "animal health emergency" on May 22, after confirming eight cases of avian flu in wild birds.

The 180-day measure was announced by the Agriculture Ministry, aiming to "prevent (the virus) from spreading to domesticated birds and commercial poultry operations, as well as protect animals and human health."

There have been no reported cases in humans in the country.

The H5N1 bird flu virus

In Cambodia, an 11-year-old girl fell ill in mid-February with a fever, cough and sore throat, and died from the H5N1 bird flu virus, according to the country's Health Ministry. 

Her father also tested positive, but Cambodian health authorities ruled out human-to-human transmission. 

It is rare that bird flu jumps over into mammals – and rarer still that humans catch the potentially deadly virus.  

There is no treatment for the disease, which is often deadly in wild and domesticated birds.  

Chile's Health Ministry notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of the detection of the first human infection in March. The WHO stated in a report that "whenever avian influenza viruses are circulating in poultry, wild birds or mammals, there is a risk for sporadic infection and small clusters of human cases due to exposure to infected animals or contaminated environments."

The head of the World Organisation for Animal Health said on May 21 that governments worldwide should consider vaccinating birds against bird flu or avian influenza to stop it from becoming another pandemic.

(With input from AFP)

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