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Expert dispels bird flu paranoia


The risk of human bird flu infection is small in Australia and people can still safely eat chicken and keep pet birds, according to bird medicine specialist Dr Bob Doneley.

"The chances of getting bird flu off a pet bird or your neighbours birds are so infinitesimally small," UQ School of Veterinary Science Adjunct Professor Dr Doneley said.

"You’re more likely to have a light plane hit by a meteor and fall on your head than somebody getting bird flu off their cockatiel."

Dr Doneley, Queensland’s only registered bird specialist, said he wanted to clear up some of the confusion and unnecessary panic about the virus.

He said bird flu was a viral disease of all birds, usually spread by water birds but normally only causing disease in poultry.

Contaminated water is the most common source of infection from bird droppings but it can be spread physically on boots or other clothing.

The virus is stable in water for up to 200 days and in droppings for four to five days, but can be stopped by heat, sunlight and most detergents.

Authorities have confirmed the dangerous H5NI strain of bird flu in South East Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe but not in Australia.

They fear an epidemic if this strain mutates to spread into a people-to-people virus.

"We need to be very alert for bird flu in poultry because the more people who get it from birds, the higher the chance that the virus could change."

Dr Doneley said the public were paranoid about catching bird flu off their neighbours’ backyard pets because the media had "played up" the virus.

He said his West Toowoomba Vet Surgery had been swamped with inquiries from panicked bird owners and neighbours about their pet parrots, finches and budgies.

"We’re getting three or four phone calls a day from people wanting to know if they should sell their house because their neighbours have got birds.

Some ways that bird owners can minimise risk are:

  • Build pens to keep domesticated poultry away from wild birds.
  • Stop domesticated poultry from accessing open ponds, lakes or creeks.
  • Keep domestic waterfowl separate from poultry where the waterfowl have access to the same water as wild waterbirds.
  • Be alert for bird flu symptoms in poultry such as coughing, sneezing, noisy breathing, increased tear production, swollen sinuses and head, decreased egg production, diarrhoea, convulsions, head arched backwards, unable to fly or walk properly, facial and comb swelling and mouth and comb turning blue and report any worries to your local government biosecurity officer.
  • Don’t eat raw or undercooked chicken.
  • Don’t use untreated water, use clean town water or bore water.

"Consumers of poultry meat and egg products should not be concerned as the risk of infection from eating poultry products is extremely low," Dr Doneley said.

"The avian influenza virus, like most other viruses and bacteria) is destroyed by adequate heating or cooking."

Bob Doneley | EurekAlert!
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