A national disease emergency plan has been activated to prevent an outbreak of deadly bird flu in Australia after the discovery of infected birds at two free-range duck farms north of Melbourne.
All 25,000 ducks on two Golden Duck Farms properties at Gisborne and Mickleham were being gassed to death last night and today using carbon dioxide, in a pre-emptive effort to protect the $2.4 billion national poultry industry.
Victoria’s chief veterinary officer Andrew Cameron said the discovery of the low pathogenic avian influenza virus on the duck farms posed little current risk to humans.
But he said the outbreak held the potential to become “a significant human health issue” because of the tendency of the virus, which can be passed between birds and humans, to mutate into highly virulent sub-strains.
“That is why we had to take this step to destroy all the ducks now because if it (the virus) got into chickens, it could soup up very rapidly and become highly pathogenic,” Dr Cameron said.
“And that is not just a threat to the poultry industry, which we want to be able to continue to say is avian influenza-free, but to humans because (a mutation) could cause disease in people.”
Government biosecurity officers in full protective clothing were at work on both farms last night, carrying chemical drums to the duck sheds where the birds were to be destroyed.
It is the first confirmed outbreak of the infectious avian influenza virus in Australia since 1997, and the first in a commercial duck flock.
It is not yet known how the virus infected the Victorian farm ducks, but wild ducks are considered a possible source.
The duck farm virus is of the H5 subtype. But Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Mark Schipp, stressed it was not the high pathogenic H5N1 strain that has killed millions of poultry and 350 people worldwide since 2003, when its transmission from birds to humans first became evident.
In Australia, there have been no cases of H5N1 avian influenza found in either birds or humans.
An emergency meeting of the national Consultative Committee on Emergency Animal Diseases last Friday approved a mass cull of all ducks on the two Golden Duck farms as the only option, after the positive disease tests for the virus were confirmed.
The Mickleham and Gisborne farms have been placed in strict quarantine isolation, forbidding movement of all birds, vehicles and people in and out of the properties unless under strict government supervision.
Dr Cameron said that according to the nationally agreed emergency animal disease response strategy for low and high pathogenic avian influenza outbreaks, all ducks were being destroyed, their bodies disposed of on-site, and the two farms disinfected and decontaminated.
All chickens or ducks on properties within the restricted zone on Melbourne’s semi-rural fringe are being urgently tested for avian influenza, including a commercial chicken-meat farm across the road from the New Gisborne duck farm. Test results so far have been negative, but Dr Cameron said it would be premature to declare the outbreak contained or the virus eradicated. He said it was heartbreaking for the duck farmer involved, since the ducks do not show any symptoms of the avian influenza virus.
“But the flock destruction has to be done, it is the nationally agreed approach for the good of the entire national poultry industry.”
Duck farmer Henning Skallebaek, who could not be contacted yesterday, will be compensated by the federal government and the poultry industry for the loss of his 25,000 ducks.
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