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  • Rikki Lambert

Victorian opposition concerned government might be winging it on avian flu

Avian flu has been transmitted to wild otters, foxes, seals and farmed minks according to the University of New South Wales in an unusual string of transmissions to mammals.

Professor Bill Rawlinson, virologist from UNSW school of biomedical sciences, said there was no cause for alarm in humans at this stage:

"The worry is a deadly H5N1 strain could mutate in a mammal like a mink and become more adaptable to people, but it doesn’t appear we’re on the cusp of that at the moment.
"Avian flu tends not to infect people because it simply can’t bind as well in humans, so you’re almost certainly not going to be infected by it walking around today in Australia.
"Pigs would be the other concern as they can be more easily infected with both human and avian flu strains, so may have potential to pass a super strain on to humans.
“Thankfully, that doesn’t always seem to be the primary way avian infections cause human infections and hasn’t been as much of an issue as we’ve feared to this point."

Victorian shadow agriculture minister Emma Kealy told Flow she was concerned about the staffing levels at Agriculture Victoria and consequently their capacity to respond to an avian flu outbreak in the primary production sector:

"... we're seeing some of the H5 strains transfer to animals very rapidly at the moment in the Northern hemisphere,  when the Minister for Agriculture and Victoria was asked about that, she actually had no idea of that threat.
"Now, I'm concerned that we've got a department that doesn't seem to have an understanding of some of the wider threats to biosecurity, and our poultry stock in particular in Victoria especially, given Victoria is the last place in Australia that had a big outbreak of avian flu. We lost an enormous amount of poultry. It took a big hit on our egg industry as well. So Victoria really needs to do a lot better. We can't just be resting and waiting for these sort of biohazard threats to arrive here before the government does anything. We actually need a very strong preparedness plan in place and of course, if we don't have the staff on the ground, the hands-on staff, to be able to implement those plans, then we're really putting our whole agricultural industry in Victoria at risk."

Agriculture Minister Gayle Tierney told parliament earlier in February:

"We have got the capability and capacity to deal with a whole range of issues within agriculture, whether it be avian flu or of course all the other elements in terms of biosecurity. We were the first jurisdiction that took the exotic diseases management issue on board. We were one of the first to actually make a significant budgetary allocation out of cycle in respect to biosecurity issues – $33 million last year alone just in terms of preparation and being able to work with our farmers, as we do with everything. They understand that the only way we can deal with avian flu, foot and mouth or lumpy skin, you name it, is to work together, because everyone has a responsibility and has a role to play.
"Indeed our agriculture department is a department that is revered not just in terms of our stakeholders but in terms of other jurisdictions because it is seen to be well prepared. It does have the capability. Whether it is avian flu or any other distraction, we do not have specified job roles for every single threat that is confronting this country and this state. That is why we have got a whole-of-department strategy employed when it comes to things like biosecurity. If you silo people too much, it means nothing much gets done in areas where specific threats are being made."

Federal health minister Mark Butler told 3AW radio on 10 February any potential human threat would be countered by a planned US-style Centre for Disease Control:

"We're concerned about the fact that all of the experts tell us that these zoonotic diseases - diseases that might jump from animals, birds to humans are likely to become more frequent in the future. That's why we're committed to a Centre for Disease Control that will frankly improve our pandemic preparedness in the future. Of course, I'm concerned about that, every health expert, every researcher, - including in Melbourne, which is one of the world's best centres of research excellence - everyone I talk to is concerned about next pandemic, as well as getting through this current one."

Professor Rawlinson agreed that zoonotic disease detections are on the rise:

"There are a range of zoonotic viruses, not just avian flu, that seem to be becoming part of a more regular cycle between animals and humans. That doesn’t mean they will always be a pandemic risk, but we should be continuing to monitor these events and be prepared to respond to any pandemic risk."


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