The first death of someone with swine flu on the Galapagos has caused alarm. Credit: Punchstock

Swine flu has reached the Galapagos Islands, and the first human fatality there has caused widespread alarm, threatening to undermine a booming tourist industry — mixed news for conservation efforts on the Ecuadorian archipelago.

Since the middle of August, when the first case of pandemic H1N1 influenza on the Galapagos was confirmed, the population of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz — the island with the biggest human population — has been on high alert.

Bars and nightclubs along the main strip were among the first businesses to close and for almost two weeks all activities in the town's schools, colleges and universities were suspended in an effort to prevent further spread of the disease.

In spite of these measures, the virus caused its first death on the islands when a 29-year-old man with swine flu died of a heart attack on 28 August.

"The major problem in Galapagos is that we don't have the hospitals and the doctors to help," says Jaime Navas, a natural history guide and friend of the deceased.

"If you get into trouble over there, there is no chance to get out."

Mainland flight

This fear has led Navas to move his young family from the islands to the city of Guayaquil on the coast of mainland Ecuador, where the hospitals are better equipped to deal with swine flu.

"There are a lot of people [with similar concerns] that have come to the mainland over the last two weeks," he says.

The governor of the islands, Jorge Torres, and the director of the Galapagos National Park, Edgar Muñoz, have both been quoted in recent news reports claiming that swine flu is unlikely to affect the buoyant tourism industry.

But Navas is not so sure. Tourists are thinking twice about coming and residents are thinking hard about leaving, he says. "This is a serious thing for Galapagos."

Tourism is a mixed blessing for the Galapagos. It generates wealth but this fuels expansion of the human population, placing ever-increasing pressure on the islands' fragile ecosystems.

Viral defences

Earlier this year, on 28 April, Muñoz and other local officials agreed on several protective measures, including mandatory use of gloves and masks by everyone working at ports and airports.

The most recent report from the Ecuadorian ministry of health, issued on 28 August, said there had been 1,001 confirmed cases of swine flu in the country, 16 of them in the Galapagos. There were 44 deaths throughout Ecuador, not including the Galapagos fatality. On Sunday, the chief of security of President Rafael Correa also died of the disease, and today the ministry of health sent 40 doctors to the islands with respirators and antiviral drugs.

Simon Goodman, a conservation geneticist at the University of Leeds, UK, has recently monitored how frequently mosquitoes are introduced to the archipelago on board the twice-daily flights to the Galapagos1. For him, the arrival of swine flu highlights just how hard it is seal the islands off from the rest of the world. "The previous geographic isolation of Galapagos is completely eroded now," he says.

There is one consolation: the H1N1 swine flu strain is extremely unlikely to affect any of the native fauna for which the Galapagos are famous, says Kristien Van Reeth, an animal virologist at Ghent University in Belgium. "So far, the infectivity of the [swine flu] virus has only been confirmed for pigs, humans, ferrets and macaques."

In the unlikely event that the virus did break out from the human population in the Galapagos, it would find it easier to spread to another mammal, says Van Reeth. So, she says, swine flu is not something that should concern the reptiles and birds that dominate Galapagos life. "I have never heard of reptiles with influenza."