A wildlife vet fears a strain of bird flu currently circulating in the US and UK could have a devastating impact on wild native bird populations, if it reaches New Zealand.
The bird flu A(H5N1) strain has been circulating throughout Asia since 2014 but has now spread to other parts of the world. In Europe, 48 million birds were culled last year in an effort to limit the spread, and in the United States, 50 million birds died.
The disease was also recently detected in Peru where nearly 14,000 pelicans and seabirds died.
Massey University Professor Brett Gartrell, who is a veterinary expert, said this strain of bird flu is highly contagious.
Workers ransack a dead crane in the Hula Lake conservation area in northern Israel in January. An outbreak of bird flu has killed thousands of migrating cranes in what authorities say is the deadliest wildlife disaster in the country’s history. Photo/AP
Bird flu has been present in birds for a long time and in the past it mainly hit poultry farmers overseas, but now a “really scary variant of bird flu” is spreading and this global epidemic is unprecedented, said he declared.
“This current strain is different in that it is much more likely to spread between different species of wild birds and is also much more likely to cause serious illness and death in these wild birds.”
This allowed this strain of bird flu to travel around the globe in ways never before possible, he said.
“The nearly 50 million birds that have died in the United States is just this year and they only entered the country the year before.”
The risk of this bird flu strain causing disease in humans is low, but it could if it mutates or changes, he said.
Wherever the disease has broken out, health authorities “have tended to adopt very strict precautionary principles regarding human health,” Gartrell said.
This bird flu epidemic was moving into areas where highly pathogenic bird flu had never been seen before, although like all epidemics it would eventually run its course, he said.
Kereru a native wood pigeon. Photo/Mark Mitchell
Fears for endangered bird species if A(H5N1) arrives in New Zealand
Birds that are exposed to this bird flu are not immune to it, he said.
“That’s our concern with New Zealand birds in particular is that we haven’t had an outbreak of bird flu here for a very long time, we have what we call low pathogenic bird flu circulating in the aquatic birds, but they are not going to give our birds any immunity against this virus if it enters the country.
Gartrell said he fears for New Zealand’s most endangered bird species if bird flu arrives here.
Internationally, measures around avian flu were aimed at protecting poultry industries and human health rather than wild bird populations, he said.
“So trying to control it in poultry flocks and things like that is killing all the infected birds and all the ones in an area around them to try to prevent the disease from spreading.”
New Zealand has been extremely lucky due to its geographically isolated position which has so far kept the virus out, he said.
“But I think we can’t get complacent about that because we have migratory birds that come down from the northern hemisphere and we have seabirds that migrate through the circumpolar regions of the southern hemisphere and if those birds can bring it here then… it only takes one infected bird to establish itself in a country.
It was said that if a bird caught bird flu it would be too sick to migrate, he said.
The disease had a variable incubation period, although typically the time from when the bird was infected to when it started showing symptoms was around a week, he said. .
Ornithologists have found that shorebirds can migrate from Alaska to New Zealand in as little as seven days, he said.
A more likely risk was that the disease could blow up bird species in New Zealand, possibly spreading from one species moving through Europe, to another moving to Australia, and then to a species that is moving to New Zealand, Gartrell said.
Seabirds, shorebirds have been seen in this outbreak, with migrating waterfowl being one of the main ways the virus moved through Asia and Europe, he said. declared.
Although there have been no waterfowl that have migrated to New Zealand, if they arrived in this country via shorebirds and then infected waterfowl, the ducks would spread them throughout the country, did he declare.
The disease could also enter the country via smuggled eggs, he said.
The key was to prevent it from getting here in the first place, he said.
Avian flu is very deadly with a mortality rate of 60% over the past 15 years. Photo / 123RF
In a statement, the Chief Veterinarian for the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), Mary van Andel, said she was constantly monitoring the situation overseas and that New Zealand had never had a case of the flu. highly pathogenic avian.
The risk of it happening was still considered low and systems were in place to ensure early detection if it were to happen, she said.
This included summer monitoring programs that scout ducks near migratory bird sites and liaise with wildlife hospitals and Poultry Industry Association veterinarians.
“Biosecurity New Zealand works closely with the Department of Conservation (DOC) on preparedness and awareness in New Zealand and on avian influenza test kits. These kits would be deployed by the DOC to the subantarctic islands if an unusual mortality event was detected,” she said.
Gartrell agreed the MPI was doing a good job, but said he would like to see them do more monitoring “on that front line” by going out and sampling shorebirds and seabirds.
The public should report any mass bird deaths or strange behavior to the MPI’s Exotic Pests and Diseases Hotline – 0800 80 99 66.
Gartrell said migratory birds will now start arriving in New Zealand after the breeding season in Alaska and the northern hemisphere.
Anyone working with birds on shore who has noticed unusual deaths should be very proactive and call the hotline as soon as possible, he said.
What if he got here?
The Department of Primary Industries said that if highly pathogenic avian influenza is detected, Biosecurity New Zealand will be the lead agency to coordinate any response.
“Any action such as movement control, vaccination or culling would depend on the extent of detection and its presence in wild birds, zoos/sanctuaries/pet birds or poultry,” van said. Andel.
Gartrell said if the disease did come to New Zealand, based on overseas experience, the most likely approach would be to try to cull all infected birds and all birds that were at risk of spreading more infection.
There was no clarity on what a mass cull of infected birds would mean for wildlife populations, including endangered birds, he said.
There would be extremely difficult decisions to be made if the disease arrived, and decisions would have to be made very quickly to prevent the virus from taking hold in the country, Gartrell said.
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