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Why is Avian Influenza (or Bird Flu) Making Media Headlines

Avian influenza, while clearly identified as a major threat to the poultry industry decades ago, became a prominent issue for the industry during the second half of 2005. Why was this so? Not because the threat of chickens becoming infected with avian influenza had increased. Rather, it was because of the very public announcement at the highest international level, i.e. the World Health Organisation, that an influenza pandemic was likely to develop from the H5N1 strain of avian influenza which has become endemic in a number of Asian countries and that such a pandemic could claim the lives of millions of people. The media reported this threat extensively and when the H5N1 virus appeared in a number of countries on the way from South-East Asia to Europe, the public concern reached a peak in late October 2005.

In 2015, avian influenza remains a concern internationally but it is not that the H5N1 strain that has become more transmissible to humans as was feared but rather the emergence of a range of other strains (recombination of parts of earlier virus strains) such as H5N9 in China (in 2014) which does not exhibit any signs of illness in poultry but can infect people who have contact with infected birds.  

During the first half of 2015, outbreaks in turkey farms in the US spread from the West Coast (Washington State) trough Montana, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and beyond. This strain is not known to infect people and does not represent a food safety concern.

Thus after a decade of avian influenza in poultry, the feared human pandemic has not eventuated because the virus has not adapted to become more easily transmissible from animals to humans and between people. Infection of people with the avian influenza virus is indeed extremely rare. This is well demonstrated by noting that over the past decade an estimated 15,000 people died from normal influenza in Australia alone, while over the same period about 350 deaths as a result of avian influenza were reported worldwide.

A major concern for the industry is how to manage a likely overreaction against consumption of poultry meat and eggs should avian influenza be found in Australia. The same misguided reaction against consumption of poultry products would be likely in the case of a human influenza pandemic even though in either case, eating properly prepared chicken meat remains as safe as ever.

We are confident that an outbreak in Australia would be dealt with swiftly and successfully, as was the case in the past eight instances over the last 35 years. The preparedness was tested during a three day simulation exercise, code-named Eleusis ’05, in late November 2005. This national exercise, which was over 12 months in planning and preparation, in particular issues related to an outbreak of a zoonotic disease, i.e. a disease that not only infects animals but can also infect humans.

Communication with all stakeholders is important and becomes absolutely essential in the case of an emergency. The simulation exercise certainly demonstrated this and pointed to a number of areas where improvements can be made. A full report with recommendations is available on the Department of Agriculture website.  As a consequence of the Eleusis Execrcise in 2005, many changes have been implemented further to improve the process of responding to an emergency disease in livestock.  

ACMF has developed a print ready pamphlet for consumers and has made it available to processors and other members of the industry for distribution and adaptation for their own purposes.

Downloading retailer pamphlet on AI: AI, it's not in your food.

Additional information is available in our Animal Health pages and also under FAQs

For relevant internet sites, look on our Link Page for both Australian and International sites.  The BBC's AI website is particulary comprehensive and readable.


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