Ecuador has received a lot of attention for its avian wildlife—in fact, it was studying birds on the Galapagos Islands where Charles Darwin invigorated his theory of evolution. The intertwining relationship between man and nature is evident, raising a cause for concern when an extremely deadly disease enters the animal kingdom. That disease is the bird flu in Ecuador.
About Bird Flu/H5N1
In 2022, Ecuadorians detected a strain of bird flu (H5N1) in local wildlife—and birds were only the beginning of the infected animals. In Peru, a neighboring country, marine life showed symptoms of H5N1—sea lions and dolphins both tested positive for the disease, causing questions about the progression, transition and mutation of H5N1 in Ecuador. Hundreds of thousands of animals, including; birds, foxes, mink and bears, tested positive for the disease. While H5N1 is rare in humans, human infection is possible.
The Way That H5N1 Works
While H5N1 is extremely contagious to birds and other animals, mammal infection is rare. However, Ecuador reported the first case of human infection in January 2023. When a human contracts H5N1 from close proximity to an infected bird, the case fatality rate (CFR) is about 56%. The World Health Organization (WHO) determined this through data from previous bird flu infections from 2003 to 2023. Of 240 confirmed cases during this time period, 135 cases were fatal, as of February 23, 2023.
H5N1 functions by connecting to receptors in an animal’s respiratory system. Humans lack these receptors in their upper respiratory tract, making infection relatively difficult. However, humans can contract the disease in their lower respiratory tract, which can cause severe pneumonia. Poultry workers—mainly slaughterhouse workers and kitchen workers—are at higher risk and must take further precautions to lower the risk of infection.
Ecuador Taking Action
Ecuador started battling H5N1 by culling thousands of birds—180,000 infected farm birds slowed the transmission of the disease, but not by much. The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG) of Ecuador announced a plan to “vaccinate more than 2 million birds.” Companies in Ecuador and Mexico are preparing three-dose vaccines which will protect birds from H5N1 death. While this Ecuador/Mexico alliance is months from being fully enacted, the push for action on both sides is strong. This partnership is a monumental step in ending bird flu in Ecuador.
Risks in Ecuador’s Future
A vaccine for H5N1 in humans is already available. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), manufacturers already have the information they need to mass produce the vaccine.
Poverty is rampant in Ecuador, making access to health facilities difficult, even though Ecuador’s 2007 health care reform created access to universal health care. This proved an asset during the COVID-19 pandemic, expanding health care and creating avenues for vaccinations against COVID-19. These still-in-place avenues will be an asset if Ecuadorians require inoculation against bird flu.
The 2007-2017 expansion of universal health care in Ecuador has been a game-changer, with more Ecuadorians trusting health care and turning toward it when needed. Initially, citizens had reluctance to utilize this health care, with 27% of citizens refraining from utilizing the resource. That number decreased to 18% in 2014 and continued to drop as time moved on, which shows a trend of progress in Ecuadorian health care.
While H5N1 is currently not a direct threat to the health of the human population, human cases of the disease have emerged. While poverty is still great in Ecuador, the COVID-19 pandemic may have created new routes for spreading vaccines which could help slow the bird flu in Ecuador should H5N1 mutate to humans.
– Thomas LaPorte