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Nearly 3,500 sea lions in Peru die of H5N1 bird flu

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Scientists collect samples from a sea lion in Peru (Credit: SERNANP)

Nearly 3,500 sea lions in Peru have recently died of H5N1 avian influenza, five times as many as previously reported, the government announced Thursday amid growing concern about the virus. Tens of thousands of birds have also died.

According to an update from the agriculture ministry, at least 3,487 South American sea lions have been found dead in seven natural areas since November. This represents approximately 3.3% of the total population in the country.

The numbers are significantly higher compared to mid-February, when 700 sea lions were reported to have died.

“The high mortality observed was worrisome; for instance, up to 100 dead individuals floating together in the sea – an unprecedented observation for this geographical region,” researchers said in a study last month. “The clinical symptoms of dying individuals were mainly neurological, such as tremors, convulsions and paralysis.”

The South American fur seal has also been affected, with five of these mammals having been found dead in recent weeks. Authorities have also reported the deaths of a dolphin and a lion.

It’s unclear how the sea lions were infected but researchers have not been able to rule out mammal-to-mammal transmission. “This should be urgently investigated,” the authors of the study said.

At least 63,000 birds at 8 protected natural sites in Peru have also died since the start of the outbreak, including boobies, pelicans and guanayes.

The global spread of H5N1 avian influenza clade – and the recent spread to a growing number of mammals – has raised concern about the possibility of a future variant which could lead to human-to-human transmission.

“The global H5N1 situation is worrying given the wide spread of the virus in birds around the world and the increasing reports of cases in mammals, including in humans,” Dr. Sylvie Briand, a WHO official, said on Friday. “WHO takes the risk from this virus seriously and urges heightened vigilance from all countries.”

Earlier this week, China reported a case of H5N1 bird flu in a 53-year-old woman from Jiangsu province. The news came just a week after an 11-year-old girl in Cambodia died from an older variant of the virus, which also infected her father.

In January, Ecuador reported the first human case of H5N1 bird flu in South America. The 9-year-old became seriously ill but has since recovered. A 38-year-old woman in China died in September.

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