Avian influenza

What is Avian influenza?

Avian influenza, or “bird flu”, is a family of viral infections that can cause deaths in some bird species, particularly domestic poultry. It is also found overseas in many species of wild birds, with waterfowl such as geese, ducks and swans acting as the natural reservoirs for the disease. These wild birds/waterfowl do not always show signs of infection. Once the virus is transferred from wild birds to domestic poultry, it is able to more easily express itself as a highly pathogenic form causing rapid and high mortality in the poultry, which is more susceptible to the disease.

In 1997 the first human infection from one highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza (H5N1 strain) was recorded. The H5N1 strain is a highly pathogenic form of avian influenza with mortality rates in bird populations reaching almost 100 percent. Since mid-2003, approximately 200 cases of human infection from the H5N1 strain have been laboratory confirmed, including over 100 fatalities.

The H5N1 strain of avian influenza has not been recorded in any Australian birds to date.

Experience overseas indicates that transmission of avian influenza from birds to humans is mainly by:

  1. Direct contact with live or dead birds infected with the virus; and
  2. Direct contact with faeces, nasal or eye discharges or other fluids from infected birds; and
  3. Poor hygiene and cooking practices that do not ensure meat is cooked thoroughly.

What do I do if I find sick or dead birds?

Domestic poultry

If signs of disease are seen in domestic birds, such as commercial or backyard poultry, including high numbers sick or dead birds, respiratory difficulties and swollen heads, it must be reported immediately to the Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries (DPI&F) Call Centre on 13 25 23.

Wild birds

Wild birds become sick and die for many natural and human-related reasons not in any way associated with avian influenza and, as indicated above, the highly pathogenic strain of the disease has not been recorded in any Australian birds to date. However, if you are doubtful or concerned about dead or sick wild birds you have found, you should in the first instance report the occurrence to the DPI&F Call Centre on 13 25 23. The DPI&F Call Centre will ask a few basic questions and, if the incident appears unusual by reference to characteristics developed in consultation with the department, will forward details of the incident to the department for investigation. Inter-agency procedures are in place to ensure that such incidents are properly examined for any signs of avian influenza.

Do not touch or handle any wild bird, particularly where the bird appears to be sick or is dead. Contact your GP if you become concerned about your own health.