Lima, Feb 16 (EFE).- Authorities in Peru have warned members of the public to avoid coming into contact with wild animals after scientists found that hundreds of dead and dying sea lions washed up on the coast were infected with highly contagious bird flu amid growing global alarm over the spread of the virus.
At least 585 sea lions and 55,000 sea birds are thought to have died from the H5N1 bird flu strain in conservation areas of Peru’s Pacific coastline in recent weeks, according to the country’s national protected areas service (Sernanp).
In a statement Wednesday, forestry and wildlife services (Serfor) advised members of the public to avoid coming into contact with sea lions and sea birds washed up on coastal areas and refrain from feeding them or trying to return them to the ocean due to the risk posed by the H5N1 bird flu subtype currently wreaking havoc in domestic and wild bird populations globally.
The species most affected by the outbreak in Peru so far are boobies, pelicans and cormorants, as well as various sea gulls and the Humboldt penguin.
A report published by a team of Argentine and Peruvian researchers on February 10 described the high bird flu mortality rate among Peruvian sea lions as “worrisome.”
The sea lions most likely caught the virus after coming into contact with infected sea birds and carcasses, but direct transmission between the sea mammals could not yet be ruled out, the scientists warned.
“We cannot exclude direct transmission among sea lions due to their colonial breeding, and because many animals died simultaneously in groups,” the report, titled First Mass Mortality of Marine Mammals Caused by Highly Pathogenic Influenza Virus (H5N1) in South America, said.
H5N1 virus transmission in mammals has been previously reported, including among seals in the United States and Germany and on a mink farm in Spain in October last year.
The World Health Organization has called for tighter vigilance on virus’ jump from avian species to mammals.
“Over the past few weeks there have been several reports of mammals including minks, otters, foxes and sea lions having been infected with H5N1 avian influenza,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a press conference on February 8.
“H5N1 has spread widely in wild birds and poultry for 25 years, but the recent spillover to mammals needs to be monitored closely,” he added.
He said that since the virus first emerged in 1996, transmission to humans was “rare and non-sustained.”
He added: “But we cannot assume that will remain the case, and we must prepare for any change in the status quo.”
Ecuadorian authorities in January reported South America’s first known case of avian flu infection in a human after a nine-year-old girl tested positive for the virus. She had apparently coming into contact with an infected bird.
The current outbreak of avian influenza has led to the death of over 140 million birds between October 2021 and January 2022, including wild specimens and poultry culled due to outbreaks, according to the World Organization for Animal Health.
In the United States alone, at least 58 million poultry have been affected by the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A number of Latin American nations including Argentina, Uruguay and Guatemala have declared health emergencies or boosted their vigilance as the highly contagious avian flu spreads through the region. EFE