The Invasive Species Council is calling on the Australian Government to urgently prepare for the potential arrival of a deadly bird flu known as HPAI H5. This form of avian influenza has already killed millions of wild birds of more than 300 species and thousands of mammals overseas.
Australia and Antarctica are now the only continents free of HPAI H5 (high pathogenicity avian influenza of subtype H5), which can spread with migrating birds and poultry.
‘Late last year, when HPAI H5 reached South America, within a few weeks it killed more than 60,000 seabirds and 3,500 sea lions in Peru alone,’ said Invasive Species Council principal policy analyst Dr Carol Booth.
‘Disease experts have warned that Australian wildlife will be highly susceptible if HPAI arrives here. A study in black swans concluded they would face ‘significant peril’.
‘Australia is well prepared to respond to avian influenza infection in poultry, having previously eradicated it 8 times, but there is no plan for wildlife.’
The Invasive Species Council is calling on the Australian Government to establish a national taskforce to develop and oversee the implementation of a response plan for avian influenza in wildlife.
‘HPAI cannot be eradicated in wildlife but the experience overseas shows that it is important to be prepared so as to minimise the impacts and maximise recovery after mass mortality events,’ said Dr Booth.
‘The Australian Government has invested millions of dollars in preparing for the arrival of livestock diseases such as foot and mouth disease in cattle, African swine fever in pigs and avian influenza in poultry.
‘We need a similar level of preparation for major wildlife diseases. The lack of it is a serious gap in Australian biosecurity.
‘The situation is more complex in native species – unlike livestock, native animals cannot be culled or contained – and the consequences are potentially dire.
‘Australia has already lost at least 9 unique animal species due to new diseases. And 16 plant species are on the brink of extinction due to the recently arrived myrtle rust.
‘For the Australian Government to achieve its commitment to no new extinctions, we need a stronger, more collaborative biosecurity system. We also need new environmental laws with a strong focus on preventing new and emerging threats from becoming the next drivers of extinction.’
- Feral Herald: The other pandemic – protecting Australian wildlife from the avian flu >
- Briefing Note: High pathogenicity avian influenza in wildlife: Is Australia prepared? >
Background notes for editors:
About the virus
- Avian influenza viruses naturally infect wild birds (they are reservoirs) and usually cause only mild or no symptoms.
- The deadly HPAI H5 strain (high pathogenicity avian influenza H5 subtype) arose after infecting poultry, mutating and then spilling back into wild bird populations. The current panzootic (animal pandemic) is only the second time that spillover of HPAI into wild bird populations is known to have occurred.
- HPAI H5 has been circulating in poultry since 1996, resulting in the death or culling of half a billion chickens, geese and other poultry.
- The risks for humans are low: since 2003, only about 900 humans have been reported infected (mostly those working with poultry), about half of whom have died.
Impacts on wildlife overseas
- HPAI H5 spilled over into wild birds in 2002. Multiple H5 strains are now spreading around the world.
- There has been an upsurge in deaths since late 2021. The World Organization for Animal Health reported an ‘unprecedented number of outbreaks’ with ‘an alarming rate of wild bird die-offs’. Some 400,000 wild birds were reported to have died in the 8 months from October 2021 to June 2022 in 2,600 outbreaks, although the true toll is likely to have been much higher – ‘only a fraction of cases in wild birds are diagnosed and reported’.
- HPAI has infected and killed numerous sea and land mammals likely to have fed on infected birds – including badgers, foxes, bears, wild cats, pigs, dolphins, seals and sea lions (endangered in Australia).
- There is concern that the virus may be evolving to spread between mammals. In October 2022, it probably spread between mink when it infected a large (50,000 mink) farm in Spain.
The risks for Australia
- The risk of HPAI arriving in Australia has been considered low because waterbirds do not migrate to Australia and it is a long way for an infected bird to fly. But experts warn that the risks are likely increasing.
- The most likely pathway to Australia is thought to be with migratory shorebirds. Every spring ~8 million shorebirds fly to Australia along the East Asia/Australasia Flyway.
- There is also concern that migrating seabirds could carry the disease to Antarctica or sub-Antarctic islands.
- Wildlife Health Australia has advised that every Australian bird species should be considered susceptible. The patterns of disease in Australia could be different from elsewhere due to Australia’s distinctive ecology and unique species.