Avian Influenza Policy Statement

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1 Avian Influenza Policy Statement Introduction Although the recent spread of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza to the EU, the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent is causing public concern about its potential to reach Australia, it should be reiterated that the situation with regards to Australia has not changed. The westward spread of H5N1 into Europe is still mainly associated with Anseriformes (ducks, geese and swans), which do not migrate to Australia. However, because of the possibility that migrating waterbirds are assisting the spread of the disease, BirdLife Australia is keeping a watching brief on developments overseas as well as working with Australian Government Health and Agriculture Departments to monitor the situation in Australia. Recent outbreaks in Cameroon, Egypt, India, Israel, Jordan, Niger, Nigeria and Pakistan originated within the poultry industry. Here, as in most other H5N1 outbreaks, there is strong circumstantial evidence that movements of poultry and poultry products are responsible. The timing and location of these outbreaks do not match the movements of migratory birds. In many of countries, poultry outbreaks occurred almost simultaneously in multiple large-scale poultry operations, indicating that migratory birds were highly unlikely to be the agents of transmission. The purpose of the following statement is to inform the public about the extremely low level of risk of migrating birds carrying the disease to Australia and passing it to humans, and to direct the public to other sources of information on avian influenza. Current Outbreaks of Avian Influenza Strain H5N1 Indonesia Indonesia is of particular concern because of the steady rise in its number of human infections and deaths since its first known outbreak of H5N1 in chickens in late Forty-nine people have been infected and 36 of them have died. Juan Lubroth, a senior veterinary expert at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said on Wednesday 31 May 2006 that Australia is well prepared to handle a possible spread of deadly bird flu from Indonesia. Australia is probably one of the handful of countries that are actually quite well geared up for the introduction of the highly pathogenic avian influenza in their poultry population. If it (the virus) were to get in, they would be in a very good situation to be able to respond adequately, he told a news conference when asked about risks of bird flu spreading into Australia from Indonesia. Lubroth said Australia was less vulnerable to spread of bird flu by wild birds, because migratory birds like ducks and geese, which are known to have carried the H5N1 virus, do not arrive to Australia and New Zealand. Europe Swans, in particular the Mute Swan Cygnus olor, have been implicated in the spread of H5N1 into European countries. The movement of swans into southern Europe is likely to be in response to freezing weather conditions around the Black Sea. Wild birds normally die within a few days of infection. The

2 appearance of infected swans in Italy, Slovenia and Greece indicates they were likely infected just prior to setting off on their journeys. It is possible the swans caught the disease from other wild birds, although this is unlikely given the tens of thousands of waterfowl that have tested negative for H5N1 over the last decade. A more likely route is through contact with infected poultry or their faeces. Mute Swans, like wild geese but unlike most ducks, often feed by grazing on agricultural fields. The practice of spreading poultry manure onto fields as fertiliser is widespread in many parts of Eastern Europe, and this is a possible source of infection. The swan deaths highlight the need for implementation of strict biosecurity measures in infected areas, and also highlight the need for monitoring of healthy wild birds for the presence of the virus. Swans seem particularly susceptible to avian influenza, and swan deaths have previously been reported in Russia and in October 2005 in Croatia. Tests on the Croatian swans found the birds excreted tiny amounts of the virus. Even so, it was remarkable that waterbirds sharing the same fish ponds as infected swans remained free of the disease. The finding of dead swans will fuel the debate over how H5N1 is spreading. However, it is notable that if wild birds had been spreading the disease across continents there would have been trails of dead birds following migration routes, which has not been the case. There is still no explanation as to why certain countries on flight paths of birds from Asia remain flu-free, whilst their neighbours suffer repeated infections, nor of why only a single strain of H5N1 is found in outbreaks west of China. Other regions Recent outbreaks in North Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent are associated with the poultry industry and movements of poultry products. The outbreak in Nigeria is cited below as an example. An outbreak of H5N1 was reported on a large commercial chicken farm in the northern state of Kaduna, Nigeria, in early February Unofficial reports suggest the virus is genetically related to the strain that spread from Qinghai, China, west to Turkey in This was the first reported outbreak of H5N1 in Africa, and a serious development in the continuing spread of avian flu. Initial, unconfirmed reports indicate that the virus may have infected chickens at other commercial farms in the area. It may have been present since 10th January, when chickens first began dying, but was earlier diagnosed as Newcastle disease. (It is possible that the outbreak involves both diseases). Outbreaks of H5N1 at commercial chicken farms have previously been reported in Asian countries, notably in Laos, where 42 of 45 outbreaks were confirmed on commercial enterprises. Importation of infected poultry is a suspected source of the Nigerian outbreak. In 2004, the government banned imports of live poultry, although in early 2005 it came under pressure from the country s farmers to resume them again because the country lacked the technology to produce sufficient quantities of day-old-chicks. A 2003 United States Department of Agriculture report stated that prior to an earlier 2002 import ban on poultry meat, "virtually all imported frozen poultry entered Nigeria illegally." In 2005, BirdLife International warned of the risk of H5N1 spreading through illegal importation of poultry and poultry products after live chickens from China were confiscated by Italian customs and tonnes of frozen Chinese poultry meat were seized in the UK.

3 General Information The following information is taken from the website of Birdlife International. BirdLife Australia is the Birdlife Partner in Australia and endorses the views expressed. There are numerous strains (at least 144) of avian influenza, many of which circulate in wild birds at low levels, but which can occur more frequently in waterbirds. Most of these viruses within wild bird populations are benign. Highly pathogenic-avian influenza viruses can cause great mortality in domestic poultry flocks but are very rare in wild birds. H5N1 is highly pathogenic but was never recorded in wild birds before the recent outbreaks in South-east Asia, Russia and countries around the Black Sea. It is likely that it originated in domestic poultry through mutation of low pathogenic sub-types and was subsequently passed from poultry to wild birds. Transmission is promoted in domestic flocks due to the density of birds and the consequent close contact with faecal and other secretions through which the virus can be transmitted. Husbandry methods in South-east Asia where domestic flocks are often allowed to mix freely with wild birds, especially waterfowl will have facilitated the transmission to migratory waterbirds, leading to several reported instances of die-offs. There is no evidence that H5N1 infection in humans have been acquired from wild birds. Human infections have occurred in people who have been closely associated with poultry. The risk to human health from wild birds is extremely low and can be minimised by avoiding contact with sick or dead birds. However, there is a possibility that this virus could develop into one that might be transmitted from human to human. If this happens, then it is most likely to happen in South-east Asia, from where it could then spread rapidly around the world. The situation is evolving rapidly from day to day, and our position on the disease and proposed control measures will continue to evolve as new data emerge. The points below are based on the best information available on 11 April 2006: 1. The most recent outbreaks suggest that migratory birds may have transmitted the disease between countries or regions. Movements of domestic poultry, another possible transmission route, have been largely implicated in the spread of the disease in SE Asia. 2. There have been no recorded instances of transmission of the disease between infected wild birds and humans. The H5N1 virus strain is not currently contagious between humans and most human cases to date have been associated with close contact with infected domestic poultry. The risk of a human contracting the disease from a wild bird is remote, unless there was excessive close contact with infected birds and their excreta. 3. Culls of wild birds are highly unlikely to stop the spread of the disease and are extremely difficult to implement. This view is shared by the World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the World Organisation for Animal Health and the UK Government. Indeed, culls have the potential to make the situation worse by dispersing infected individuals and stressing healthy birds, making them more prone to disease. Moreover, it would divert resources away from important disease control measures. 4. The most efficient control techniques involve improved biosecurity, primarily of the poultry industry, to reduce the likelihood of contact between domestic stock and wild birds or infected water sources. This needs to be coupled with swift and complete culls of infected poultry flocks in the event of an outbreak. Further measures that should be considered include stricter controls on wild bird markets, and movements of domestic poultry. Such measures should be introduced worldwide. Countries currently free of the disease should consider a ban on imports of domestic poultry and wild birds for the pet trade from affected regions. Preventing public access to infected sites is also clearly a sensible precaution.

4 5. It is important that discussions of the issues relating to avian influenza should differentiate between the real problems caused by the spread of the disease within bird populations, especially within the poultry industry, and the theoretical risks of a human pandemic, which might not happen. 6. We fully recognise the potential for a human pandemic should the current viral strain increase its transmissibility through mutation or reassortment, thus facilitating human to human transfer of the disease, and in the absence of swift measures to safeguard public health. We also recognise the impact the current strain is having on local economies forced into culls of domestic flocks, and the potential for greater financial impact on the poultry industry. 7. In addition to the impact of the disease on economics and livelihoods, and the potential impacts for human health, there are also potential implications for conservation. For instance, it is estimated that somewhere between 5% and 10% of the world population of the Bar-headed Goose Anser indicus perished in the recent outbreak in China. Notes: The World Heath Organization (WHO), The Office International des Epizooties (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) all concur that the control of avian influenza infection in wild bird populations is not feasible and should not be attempted. The Risk of Migrating Birds Bringing Avian Influenza to Australia Various strains of avian influenza are present in birds in Australia but these are largely benign. The current concern is over the specific strain called H5N1. Each year an estimated 3 million migrating shorebirds spend the southern summer in Australia. These birds have come from breeding grounds as far away as Siberia and Alaska and travel to Australia along the East-Asian/Australian Flyway. This migration pathway takes the birds through east and South-east Asian countries where the H5N1 strain is present. However, while it is possible migrating birds could carry highly pathogenic forms of avian influenza to Australia, it is unlikely for the following reasons: 1. Monitoring data from northwest Australian over the past 25 years suggest the incidence of avian diseases (including influenza, encephalitis and Newcastle disease) in migratory shorebirds is low. No birds with the H5N1 strain of avian influenza have ever been found in Australia including during the present time. 2. The birds possibly associated with the spread of avian influenza in Asia and Europe are migrating waterfowl such as swans, ducks and geese. In Australia, such species are not migratory, and there is probably only limited interaction with birds to the immediate north of Australia, such as PNG. These areas have not reported any instance of avian influenza at the current time. 3. Migrating shorebirds travel relatively quickly from northern hemisphere breeding grounds, covering the thousands of kilometres in a few long steps (for some species, perhaps three or four steps) with brief rests in between. The limited time spent in countries affected by the current outbreak reduces the likelihood of contracting the disease. As the migration is highly demanding, energetically speaking, it may be that diseased birds could not complete the migration to Australia anyway.

5 4. Many, and perhaps most, migrating shorebirds inhabit the inter-tidal zone during and after their migration, reducing the likelihood of contracting the disease from waterfowl and poultry, or the likelihood of transmitting the disease to these species on arrival in Australia. Could H5N1 Avian Influenza Reach Australia? The most credible ways for avian influenza to reach Australia are through the importation of infected live birds, or of poultry products. Both of these pathways are under the strict control of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, but a residual risk of accidental introduction remains. In the event that the H5N1 strain develops the capability for human-to-human transfer the major risk of entry to Australia would be posed by international travellers. What Should I do if I am in Direct Contact with Migratory Birds? Although the risk of contracting avian influenza from wild birds in Australia is very low there are some sensible precautions which people can take: Don t pick up sick birds or dead birds, When walking, keep your dog on a lead at all times to avoid contact with dead or injured birds, If you have ducks or chickens, don t let wild birds mix with them. Observe wild birds from a distance. Avoid touching wildlife if there is contact, do not rub eyes, eat, drink or smoke before washing hands thoroughly. What is BirdLife Australia Doing? BirdLife Australia is directly monitoring the international situation as the outbreak unfolds. Our colleagues at Birdlife International and Wetlands International are assisting by providing us with information. We are cooperating with the Australian Government Departments of Health and Ageing, and Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry, who in turn have international links through the World Health Organisation (WHO), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). BirdLife Australia is attending a two day workshop in June 2006 on Avian Influenza in Canberra, to facilitate information exchange. BirdLife Australia s vast datasets are being used by authorities to examine areas where migratory birds might occur near poultry facilities. This planning will aid Australia s preparedness. BirdLife Australia is also assisting with surveillance, and in understanding the ecology of migratory and resident wild birds. Thus, we are contributing to longer-term solutions of this problem. In 2004, BirdLife Australia s journal, The Emu, published a review of the role of wild birds in the possible transmission of avian influenza (Tracey et al Emu 104: ).

6 Useful links: Australia Australian Government Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry: Australian Government Department of Health and Aging: Useful links: International World Health Organisation: Food and Agriculture Organisation: World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) Birdlife International: (USA) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

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