Avian flu: Biosecurity could be brought down by backyard birdkeepers | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Avian flu: Biosecurity could be brought down by backyard birdkeepers

Avian flu has been causing devastation to farms in the United States since late 2023, and now Australia is on high alert with the first human case reported here last week.

A child on a flight from India tested positive for the H5N1 strain that is known to pass between birds, cats and cattle - but rarely humans. We’ve been told that threat is now contained, but we must remain vigilant as this strain has caused untold animal deaths globally since 2020 except for in Australia and the rest of Oceania.

Meanwhile, the H7N3 strain of avian flu is already prevalent in Australia, with outbreaks at two egg farms. H7N3 is highly pathogenic and can cause severe illness in birds. While transmission to humans in Australia has not been reported in this outbreak, H7N3 and other avian influenza viruses have been known to transmit to and cause illness in humans.

Australia’s biosecurity program has leapt into action, with hundreds of thousands of commercial birds culled, and monitoring on high alert, but there’s still the chance we might miss something – that there’s a gap in our armour.

And I think that gap could be backyard farms.

Infections in chicken farms result in mass culls.

Like COVID – with wings

Private farms and backyard coops have the potential to undo our best efforts in biosecurity.

If we consider this like COVID, where we enforced nationwide lockdowns to try and contain the spread, this is much the same - except all it takes is one infected bird to fly the virus from a backyard to a chicken farm, potentially devastating egg, chicken, and other farming industries on the way.

From there any hopes of avian flu containment has flown the coop, so to speak.

H7N3 is also known to pass to cows, meaning the dairy and beef industry could have a problem too.

So, Australia’s farmers are relying on the vigilance of backyard bird owners.

People with backyard flocks should be ensuring their footwear is kept clean, always washing their hands before and after handling birds or eggs, quarantining new birds before integrating them to their flock, limiting exposure of their flock to wild birds, cleaning eggs before using them, and avoiding contact between their birds and family pets.

Those with backyard flocks should be vigilant to the signs of illness in their birds. If they suspect avian influenza within Queensland they should contact the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries immediately, or the Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline or their local veterinarian. For people that don’t own a backyard flock If they see sick or dead birds anywhere in Australia they should report them to a ranger, biosecurity officer, government vet, or call the Emergency Animal Disease Hotline.

While pasteurisation generally deactivates avian flu in milk, and commercial eggs are washed during processing – people who are selling and buying raw milk and farm eggs will need to be more vigilant.

Backyard birdkeepers need to up their game to protect Australia’s agriculture.

The cost of doing the right thing

And this is where we need to support farmers to do what needs to be done.

We can cull the birds, but they can’t just suddenly be replaced by a flock at a productive age. Thousands of poultry were culled in Victoria last week. Farmers in these situations will rely on Government support to absorb the financial blow.

In some countries, the cost of containment is prohibitive and relies on the goodwill of farmers. We know that many may be already struggling financially, relying on casualised work, and some of them may already foster distrust of Government controls since the COVID 19 pandemic.

As an example, a similar outbreak occurred in Vietnam in the 2000s and the Government enforced strict controls, quarantining flocks, and disallowing trade. However farmers, still needing an income, sold their flock under the cover of night and the virus continued to spread.

There are many barriers to doing what might normally work at containing a pandemic – but we have not come up with a great way to globally manage avian flu that doesn’t impact on the viability of farmers.

For example, we need better access to candidate vaccines so we can utilise these to greater effect rather than relying on the costly approach of culling. There is also a need to improve flock, herd, and farm worker surveillance so that any infections are picked up early to allow for timely containment of any threats. Research is also required into the best ways to minimise transmission between wild animals and farm/domestic animals, and from these animals to humans.

Our high-risk time for the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian influenza will likely begin in August with the annual arrival of migratory birds. I urge everyone to look out for unwell or dead wild birds and report them. We need to pull together to plug the gaps in our biosecurity.

Dr Mason’s interests are in infection prevention, infectious diseases, emergency management and clinical governance. He has expert level credentials with the Australasian College for Infection Prevention and Control, is a Technical Adviser to the WHO Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, an Executive Member (IPC lead) of the Pacific Region Infectious Disease Association and is Co-Director of the Collaborative for the Advancement of Infection Prevention and Control that supports IPC activities across the Western Pacific.

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