Bird flu fears spur quarantine change

By Nassim Khadem
October 27, 2005

COUNTRIES exporting birds to Australia face tougher quarantine measures to reduce the chance of bird flu spreading to our shores.

The Federal Government announced the stronger measures yesterday after authorities in Melbourne last week found three racing pigeons imported from Canada had been exposed to bird flu.

Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran said all imports of live birds and hatching eggs would have to be tested for avian influenza antibodies before being shipped to Australia. They would be tested again on arrival.

Health Minister Tony Abbott, returning to Australia after a bird flu meeting in Ottawa, Canada, said interstate travel and public gatherings could be banned if an outbreak of the deadly bird flu virus hit Australia.

The Government was considering the bans as part of plans to tackle any spread of bird flu across the country. “Cancellation of interstate travel, border closures between different parts of the country, cancellation of large public gatherings (are being considered),” he said.

Mr McGauran lifted the ban on bird imports from Canada, imposed last week, saying trade could resume “with the additional testing requirements”.

Prime Minister John Howard also announced an $8 million package over four years to help the South Pacific prepare for a bird flu outbreak. He said it was important to improve the region’s quarantine systems, infection prevention and control programs, and animal surveillance.

Mr Abbott said Australia would be more prepared than other countries in the event of an outbreak. “We’ve been very quick building up our antiviral stockpile; we did that last year,” he said. “I think that quite a few of the other countries were a bit impressed with what Australia had done.”

He said Australia had been working closely with Indonesia, Vietnam and China, which were vulnerable to an outbreak because of less stringent poultry farming conditions. “We’ve been working with them to boost surveillance, to improve their reporting systems, to improve their laboratory diagnostic capacity,” he said.

But shadow foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd said the Government had been complacent and had not given enough money to help vulnerable Asian countries.

Australia will host an APEC meeting on avian flu in Brisbane next week. It will bring together for the first time disaster management co-ordinators from 21 APEC countries and health and quarantine experts.

Migrating birds are expected to spread the deadly bird flu into East Africa within weeks, increasing the risk of an influenza pandemic that could kill millions worldwide, according to Nature magazine.

- with AAP