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'Shock' disease warning prompts bird extinction fears: 'Deadly spread'

Experts are concerned Australia is not prepared for an avian influenza outbreak in wild birds.

From kookaburras to currawongs, wedge-tailed eagles to magpies, Australians love their native birds. But how would our lives change if they were to suddenly disappear from our backyards?

Experts are warning if a highly pathogenic form of avian influenza reaches our shores the consequences could be dire, with some species driven to extinction.

Internationally, the HPAI H5 mutation has killed millions of birds and infected hundreds of species and Australia and Antarctica remain the only continents to remain free of the virus. While authorities have eradicated outbreaks of the disease in domestic poultry eight times, the Invasive Species Council is warning the country is ill-prepared to cope if it spreads to wild birds.

Left - a man sitting on a bench looking at a swan. Right - an ibis on a red bin in Australia.
Australia's suburbs would be dramatically changed if native birds became infected with avian influenza. Source: Getty (File)

Biosecurity expert Dr Carol Booth told Yahoo News Australia that while she expected some deficiencies in the plan, she was surprised at the country’s lack of preparedness. "I was rather shocked," she said.

Australia’s Department of Agriculture (DAFF) responded to her concerns, advising it has a nationally agreed framework to tackle the disease, but Dr Booth remains concerned that its focus is on livestock species like chickens and turkeys. “I had assumed that the poultry plan probably also focused on wildlife. It certainly mentions wildlife, but it’s not a plan for what to do if it infects wildlife,” she alleges.

What would happen if bird flu infected Australia’s wild birds?

  • Sea and shorebirds would likely be first impacted.

  • The disease could spread quickly among flocking birds.

  • Falcons and other predators could become ill from eating the sick and dead.

Based on its spread overseas, avian influenza would most likely spread to Australia via shorebirds which migrate to our shores in the spring.

HPAI H5 has caused tens of thousands of localised outbreaks — it decimated flocks of birds on the Farne Islands in the UK in July last year. While the disease started in birds it has also infected badgers, foxes, bears, cats, pigs, dolphins, minks and seals. It also killed thousands of sea lions along Peru’s coast this year.

Three young girls look down at a dead bird.
Australia's native bird species would likely be highly susceptible to avian influenza and die in great numbers. Source: Getty (File)

Because the disease has never become endemic in Australia’s native birds, Dr Booth said it’s hard to predict how it will respond.

“Australian species are likely to be highly susceptible because they're immunologically naive,” she said. “You have descriptions overseas of seabird colonies overseas where the ground is littered with dead bodies of adults and chicks — three-quarters of the colony are dead because of the very rapid and deadly spread.”

How did Australia eradicate bird flu in poultry?

The first avian influenza outbreak occurred in Australia in 1976, and the most recent outbreak was in 2020. It affected three egg farms, two turkey farms and an emu farm.

Australia, like most overseas nations, combats the spread of the virus with quarantine, culling and disposal of the birds.

Read more news about birds here:

Fast bird flu facts:

What's next in stopping the spread?

DAFF told Yahoo News its nationally-agreed-upon approach to combatting disease outbreaks was updated in 2022 and its wild animal response is currently under review. As variants of avian influenza have killed humans, DAFF says it recognises the connection between animal, environment and human health.

“Prevention and response strategies for wild birds in Australia will also be informed by risk assessment work currently being undertaken by Wildlife Health Australia, and by ongoing consultations with key stakeholders and networks, as well as lessons learned from wild bird outbreaks elsewhere in the world,” a spokesperson said.

While the Invasive Species Council has secured a meeting with the government next week to discuss the issue, Dr Booth clarified there have been no guarantees that it will heed their warning about the threat.

She argues Australia faces a problem of “insufficient resources” for its biosecurity system, putting it under “great strain”. Therefore she believes the focus has been on agricultural diseases including foot and mouth disease, African swine fever, lumpy skin disease and varroa mite.

Historically, eight Australian species are presumed extinct because of disease. If Australia's government plans to keep its promise of no more under its watch then Dr Booth believes it will need to strengthen its focus on avian influenza's potential impact on wildlife.

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