Cuban Authorities Maintain Secrecy About Avian Flu at Havana’s 26th Avenue Zoo

A space like the Havana Zoo could be the propitious scenario for spread between species and possible contagion to humans. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 16 February 2023 — “You approach and it seems nice, a green rectangle, but it immediately jumps out that it’s a place with many hidden things,” says María Elena Valdivia, designer and neighbor of the 26th Avenue Zoo in Havana, the place where lions roar and the first case of avian flu has been detected. If someone had thought about the worst point on the Island for the virus to land, reality has just surpassed it.

This Thursday the main entrance of the park remained closed, although the movement of workers could be seen inside. A faded poster with a painted zebra welcomes people, but there is no sign of the line of families with children that is usually nearby. The park has been in quarantine since the H5N1 subtype of avian influenza was detected in wild birds.

“This has been a health problem for our community for a long time  and we are very concerned about this,” says Valdivia, who lives a few meters from the bus stop near the main entrance of the zoo. “I grew up in this neighborhood and went to the zoo many times as a child. I have pleasant memories, but living nearby is something else; this place has to be closed.”

She lists the problems. “The animals are hungry, overcrowded and cry all the time. We live 24 hours a day with roars, bellows and bleats that make you sad. It’s very difficult to sit at your table at home and eat hearing those sounds of beings that are starving. I can’t do it anymore.”

Overcrowding and the presence of mammals near the areas intended for birds or in contact with wild birds increases the risk posed by the Havana zoo of a jump of the virus between species. The disease, first detected in 1996, has spread among free birds and those in captivity, but in recent decades it has also affected humans.

Migratory birds carry the four strains of this influenza that has already reached Central and South America. Avian influenza is still rare in people “but we cannot assume that this is always the case, and we must prepare for any change in situation,” warned the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Between 2003 and March 2022, there have been 864 cases in humans and 456 deaths.

Recently, the alarm went off even more when in Peru it was confirmed that the death of hundreds of sea lions was due to the virus, and researchers warn that there may already be contagion among mammals. “What happened in Peru is the first case in all of Latin America of massive mammal mortality,” acknowledges Víctor Gamarra-Toledo, an ornithologist and researcher in the Andean country.

A space like the Havana zoo could be the ideal scenario for the spread among species and possible contagion to humans. The authorities have not updated the situation and insist that everything is controlled, but the traditional secrecy of the official Cuban media generates more suspicion than certainty. In previous epidemics, reality has far surpassed the information disseminated by the national media.

A few years ago, the presence of the giant African snail was detected at the 26th Avenue zoo. After being closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the park reopened with a panorama of malnourished animals, without water, with their cages full of dirt and excrement, in addition to the prominence of the snail, one of the 100 most invasive species internationally.

People focused on Covid and masks, but we have also had to live with the African snail; no one told us that they eat everything.” A neighbor close to the Zoo says that he has seen how his small garden with succulents and banana bushes has been devoured by “slow but crushing beings like the elephant.”

Apes confined in tiny cages, employees who profit by taking out lion cubs for photographs, workers who sell anything from peacock feathers to hyena excrement, in high demand in certain religious rituals: the zoo on 26th Avenue is old-style, with caged animals and lack of hygiene.

However, fears that the virus will affect national poultry production seem much lower in a country with decimated production due to the lack of animal feed, the deterioration of farms and the increasing import of chicken meat from nations in the region, especially the United States. The “disease” that seems to have ended the poultry industry on the Island does not spread among birds but is born from the inefficiency of the system.

The main fears with the current situation are focused, then, on the impact on wild birds and the possible zoonotic jump, a scenario that would aggravate the delicate situation of the public health system, which has a deficit of professionals and drugs and a very deteriorated infrastructure.

This week, private sellers of trinkets and toys have disappeared. The zoo, a state-run monopoly, is a frequent target of resellers who take advantage of their increasingly poor subsidized offers to buy and then offer those same products to the families who come to visit the premises. But between the closure and the fear of contagion, visitors are dissuaded from even approaching their kiosks.

It’s funny because you can hear a lot of birds singing, most of them passing through or wild. They like this area because of the many trees in the middle of the city,” says another neighbor whose patio is barely separated by a street from the back of the zoo. “This sound has always been there, but now with the arrival of avian flu, you notice it more because you don’t know what’s going to happen to the birds.”

Through one of the trees whose branches come out of the zoo and almost touch the roof of this resident’s house, an agile mockingbird jumps and sings his song, a melody of hope in the midst of worry.

Translated by Regina Anavy


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.