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The role of wild birds in the transmission of avian influenza for Australia: an ecological perspective

John P. Tracey, Rupert Woods, David Roshier, Peter West and Glen R. Saunders

Emu 104(2) 109 - 124
Published: 23 June 2004

Abstract

Waterbirds, particularly Anatidae, are natural reservoirs for low-pathogenic avian influenza and have been implicated as the primary source of infection in outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza. An understanding of the movements of birds and the ecology of avian influenza viruses within the wild bird population is essential in assessing the risks to human health and production industries. Marked differences in the movements of Australian birds from those of the Northern Hemisphere emphasises the danger of generalising trends of disease prevalence to Australian conditions. Populations of Anatidae in Australia are not migratory, as they are in the Northern Hemisphere, but rather display typical nomadic traits, sometimes moving large distances across continental Australia in response to flooding or drought. There is little known regular interchange of anatids between Australia and Asia. In contrast, species such as shorebirds and some seabirds are annual migrants to Australia along recognised flyways from breeding grounds in the Northern Hemisphere. Movement into Australia by these species mainly occurs into the north-west and along the east coast over the Pacific Ocean. These species primarily arrive during the Australian spring and form large aggregations along the coastline and on inland wetlands. Other Australian migratory species (passerines, bee-eaters, dollar-birds, cuckoos, doves) regularly move to and from Asia through the Torres Strait Islands. The disease status of these birds is unknown. The movements of some species, particularly anatids and ardeids, which have ranges including Australia and regions where the virus is known to occur, have been poorly studied and there is potential for introduction of avian influenza subtypes via this route. Avian influenza viruses are highly unpredictable and can undergo reassortment to more pathogenic forms. There is insufficient knowledge of the epidemiology and transmission of these viruses in Australia and broad-scale surveillance of wild birds is logistically difficult. Long-term studies of anatids that co-habit with Charadriiformes are recommended. This would provide an indication of the spatial and temporal patterns of subtypes entering Australia and improve our understanding of the ecology of endemic viruses. Until such time as these data become available, Australia's preparedness for avian influenza must focus on biosecurity at the wild bird–poultry interface.

https://doi.org/10.1071/MU04017

© Royal Australian Ornithologists Union 2004

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