What is bird flu, and should Australians be worried?

Source: WHO

Bird flu has reared its head in two Australian states, so should we be worried?

This week saw orders given to cull hundreds of thousands of chickens after avian influenza (bird flu) H793 was detected at farms in Victoria’s Terang and Meredith, while the H9N2 strain was found at a Western Australian egg farm.

The Terang and Meredith properties were connected through joint management, staff and machinery, while the strain found in Western Australia was unrelated.

On Wednesday, a child who had returned to Victoria in March from a trip to India was confirmed to be Australia’s first human case of bird flu.

Victoria’s chief health officer Clare Looker said the child had recovered from a “severe infection” after contracting the H5N1 strain, which has spread rapidly overseas.

Australians have been told not to be concerned about purchasing eggs and poultry from supermarkets, while Victorian Farmers Federation vice-president Danyel Cucinotta told The New Daily farmers should be on the lookout for any bird flu symptoms.

“It’s vital that farmers follow their biosecurity protocols and reduce risk by limiting movements to prevent any further spread,” he said.

“I can’t stress more the importance of reporting any symptoms in birds to the Emergency Animal Disease Hotline on 1800 675 888, even in backyard birds such as chickens and hens.”

What is avian influenza?

Bird flu is a type A influenza virus and despite its name, infections are not limited to birds.

La Trobe University ARC DECRA fellow in biochemsitry Emma Grant told The New Daily bird flu could be found in everything from wild birds, to horses, to seals.

Bird flu is transmitted through saliva, nasal secretions and faeces, and is usually spread by direct contact between animals or contaminated water or feed.

Grant said bird flu is rarely found in humans as it is difficult for the virus to bind onto human cells; Agriculture Victoria’s website states humans cannot become infected by consuming cooked chicken meat or eggs.

Although bird flu has occasionally been passed from animals to humans, it has not yet been documented to be transmitted from human to human.

What are the symptoms?

For animals such as birds, symptoms of bird flu include, but are not limited to, diarrhoea, respiratory issues such as rapid breathing or increased nasal secretions, and sudden death.

Bird flu is also potentially deadly for humans, with symptoms including fever, sore throat, cough, headache and aching muscles.

There is no bird flu vaccine for humans.

How big is the problem?

There are several strains of bird flu, but H5N1 has been the biggest problem internationally in recent years.

Infections of H5N1 can present severe symptoms and the strain has a high mortality rate.

Earlier this year, it was confirmed H5N1 had reached Antartica for the first time on record.

Falkland Islands

In January, bird flu was found in gentoo pengiuns in the Falkland Islands for the first time. Photo: Getty

The US is also currently struggling with a wave in dairy cattle; a countrywide survey released in April showed 20 per cent of commercial milk samples contained particles of the H5N1 virus.

Despite the findings, the US Food and Drug Administration said there was no reason to believe the virus found in milk posed a risk to human health.

The good news is H5N1 has not yet been detected in birds in Australia, and the discovery of other bird flu strains in Victoria and Western Australia does not spell doom.

“We have seen outbreaks of bird flu in Australia before in agriculture,” Grant said.

“The vigilant farmers and the work of the relevant health departments have contained those quickly [so we] have not seen widespread outbreaks before, and the same could be expected of these current outbreaks as well.”

– with AAP

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