According to the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship, Antarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest continent on Earth.
Since October 2022, when highly pathogenic avian influenza subtype H5 (HPAI H5) was first reported in Colombia, the virus has spread through South America with devastating consequences for its wild bird and mammal populations. More than 500,000 wild birds of at least 65 species and more than 20,000 wild mammals of at least 15 species were reported dead in Peru and Chile.
Now it is spreading to the southern tip of South America, putting ecosystems as important as Antarctica at risk, warns a report by OFFLU, a global network of animal influenza experts.
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The virus was recently reported to have been detected in a South American sea lion in Puerto Williams, Chile, the southernmost detection to date. “It is likely to continue south and reach Antarctica and its offshore islands in the near future,” the entity reported. Antarctica is home to more than 100 million breeding birds, six species of pinnipeds, and 17 species of cetaceans. This risk is likely to increase in the coming months due to spring migration of birds, OFFLU said. Given the high susceptibility of the animals, if the virus got there, it could spread rapidly.
The impact of this HPAI H5 outbreak on South American wildlife is enormous. First, the massive loss of life: to date, more than 500,000 wild birds and more than 20,000 wild mammals of at least 80 different species have died, and the actual death rate is likely to be much higher. This has direct implications for the conservation of many species of wild bird and mammal species that are already threatened by other causes. This includes species listed as endangered or at high risk of becoming endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
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Based on its current presence in South America, HPAI H5 in the Falkland Islands is at high risk of invasive Antarctic/sub-Antarctic wildlife due to their relative proximity to the mainland and potential movement of waterfowl. Also, unlike most other islands in the sub-Antarctic region, the Falklands are permanently inhabited by people engaged in small-scale poultry farming (just over 3,000 inhabitants), which could also have an impact.
The presence of birds of prey such as vultures, caracalas and falcons is also of concern because these birds may be exposed to the virus through consumption of infected wild animals, as has happened on other continents. Finally, the report says that the possibility that human activities (such as tourism or research) inadvertently caused the spread of HPAI H5 in Antarctica and sub-Antarctic islands should not be ruled out. While acknowledging that doing little to stop HPAI H5 from spreading to Antarctica and killing wild Antarctic birds and mammals, it does point to several potential detection and response options.
“Mass vaccination of colonial wildlife using live virus (vector) vaccines should be considered an urgent research priority. In addition, the development of vaccines that can be delivered by remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) may be a step towards vaccinating colonized wildlife in Antarctica.” a valuable approach, but always carefully consider potential interference.” the document. Other measures, such as monitoring and accurately recording fatalities and following guidelines to reduce the risk of human-to-human transmission of the virus, are key to avoiding catastrophe.