Statement from Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer on avian influenza preparedness

​​In response to the current escalation of HPAI outbreaks globally (in particular, the situation in the United States), I would like to assure Australians that the risk of AI viruses entering Australia from other countries is low.

Australia has a world-class biosecurity system and there are strong measures and systems in place to both manage the risk of introduction of AI viruses into Australia, and to respond effectively in the case of an incursion.

About Avian influenza

Avian influenza (AI) is a virus that can affect many species of birds, including commercial birds (e.g. chickens, ducks and turkeys), pet birds and wild birds.

AI virus strains can be classified as highly pathogenic (HPAI) or low pathogenic (LPAI), based on the severity of the disease they cause. HPAI is an extremely infectious and fatal form of the disease that can spread rapidly from flock to flock and has been known to affect humans. LPAI typically causes only minor illness, and sometimes manifests no clinical signs at all.

The Asian origin HPAI H5N1 virus has caused significant global outbreaks in domestic and wild birds and caused mortalities in humans.

Current global status

Since December 2014, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has confirmed the detection of two new HPAI H5 viruses—the H5N2 virus and a new H5N1 virus. The new H5N1 virus is not the same virus as the Asian origin H5N1 virus found in Asia that has caused some human illness.

As at 5 June 2015, there were 210 detections of HPAI H5 viruses reported in the US and Canada, mostly in commercial turkey flocks, with more than 45 million birds destroyed. The disease has also been found in wild birds and in a few backyard poultry flocks.

Although the socioeconomic and animal health impacts of these outbreaks have been serious, experts consider the risk to people from these HPAI H5 infections to be low. To date no human cases of these HPAI H5 viruses have been detected in the United States, Canada, or internationally.

Current Australian status

Australia continues to remain free of HPAI, and the risk of introduction of AI viruses into Australia from other countries remains low.

Australian preparation

Australia has a strong biosecurity system and we have a range of measures in place to manage the risk of HPAI entering Australia from other countries, including: surveillance of both wild birds and commercial poultry; mandatory reporting requirements for suspected cases of AI; and strict biosecurity laws for the import of avian species, supported by strong regulation, inspection and surveillance measures at the border.

The Australian Government continues to collaborate, fund and lead numerous initiatives to address the biosecurity risks associated with AI.

Should an outbreak of HPAI occur in Australia, we are well prepared with strong expertise and experience, international connections and well-tested emergency response plans. Animal health authorities have contingency plans to minimise the impact of an outbreak of AI in Australia. These procedures are outlined in the Australian Veterinary Emergency Plan (AUSVETPLAN). AUSVETPLAN describes the response measures that will be used should an outbreak occur, including the culling of infected birds, disposal method used for carcasses and sanitary measures that will be adopted at infection sites to contain the disease.

Free-range poultry facilities without good biosecurity practices have been identified as a potential source of risk. In recognition of this, the Australian government is leading a group to develop measures to address risks that have been identified.

Although the risk of AI viruses entering Australia from other countries is low, in response to the current escalation of HPAI outbreaks globally, I have advised the Australasian Veterinary Poultry Association (AVPA) to encourage poultry and avian veterinarians and other AVPA members to remain vigilant for AI and communicate the risks to poultry producers and owners.

I have also suggested that poultry producers be encouraged to review and enhance their biosecurity plans and practices, particularly those around preventing contact with wild birds (including through poultry drinking water, as wild bird contact with water for poultry is a known path for AI virus transmission).

The Australian Government is monitoring the global HPAI situation and communicates with stakeholders on significant developments as they arise.

Both animal and public health sectors must continue to maintain vigilance in regularly detecting, reporting, and characterising AI viruses. The Australian Government will continue assessing and managing existing and evolving health risks associated with these viruses.

More information on the Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Preparedness and Outbreak Response is available.

More information about the global HPAI situation.