Avian influenza, otherwise known as ‘bird flu’ or ‘AI’, is a type of influenza virus that can cause high numbers of deaths in birds and has the potential to infect humans.
Types of avian influenza
The virus is classed into one of two types depending on the severity of disease caused in birds; ‘low pathogenic’ and ‘high pathogenic’ avian influenza.
- Low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) causes less disease and can readily mutate into HPAI.
- High pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) causes more disease with mortality rates up to 100% possible.
Avian influenza is not exotic to Australia. LPAI is known to circulate naturally among Australian birds, and is more common in waterfowl (e.g. ducks and geese) and shorebirds (e.g. waders and sandpipers), both of which are the natural reservoirs of the virus. Most bird species are able to become infected and spread the virus.
HPAI has never been detected in wild bird populations in Australia and therefore Australia is considered free of HPAI.
Symptoms in birds
Symptoms of infection can vary with a wide range of signs.
Look out for:
- swollen head
- reduced egg production
- misshapen eggs
- respiratory distress (open-mouth breathing, coughing, sneezing)
- reluctance to move, eat or drink
- droopy appearance
- inability to walk or stand
- unusual head or neck posture
- sudden death in several birds.
A large number of dead birds in a short space of time is typical of HPAI infection.
Reporting avian influenza
Contact your local veterinarian or phone the Animal Disease Hotline immediately on 1800 675 888 if your birds are showing any of the symptoms listed above.
Reducing the risk of avian influenza in your poultry flock
There is no vaccination for avian influenza virus for poultry in Australia. Biosecurity is the best defence to protect poultry flocks from disease. The focus is on minimising contact between poultry flocks and wild birds. Husbandry and hygiene practices to achieve this level of biosecurity include:
- keep feed and water inside sheds where practical, or ensure they are covered and difficult for wild birds to access
- ensure fresh feed and water is provided daily, and keep feed and water spaces clear of faeces and other organic matter
- ensure drinking water is treated (especially if using water straight from a natural water source such as a river or dam)
- ensure regular testing of treated drinking water, to make sure treatment is effective
- minimise the presence of vegetation that attract wild birds (particularly waterfowl)
- prevent the mixing of several species of poultry together (keep chickens, ducks and turkeys separate)
- limit visitor contact with birds
- keep new birds separate from your flocks (held in a quarantine pen) for at least 4 weeks until you are sure they are disease free after transportation
- contact your local veterinarian or PIRSA to improve your overall flock’s health, such as vaccinations.
Human health risks
There is very low risk of birds infecting humans with avian influenza, but there have been a few hundred human deaths occur globally.
Good personal hygiene when handling birds is crucial to prevent disease outbreak. Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling birds. People that work with poultry are also recommended to obtain the annual flu vaccine.
The Australian Government Department of Health website provides information on avian influenza in humans.
Biosecurity SA works with the National Avian Influenza Wild Bird Surveillance Program run by Wildlife Health Australia to monitor avian influenza virus presence in wild birds to understand the risks, and prevent infection in poultry flocks.
There have been no detection of avian influenza in poultry in South Australia, however LPAI has been found in South Australian wild birds. Detections of HPAI in Australia are rare and all outbreaks have been successfully contained and eradicated.
If detected, avian influenza is declared as an Emergency Animal Disease in Australia, with action focused on eradicating the disease. The Animal Health Australia website details the response.