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13 Mar 2023

Research confirms bird flu has not entered Australia

Avian flu continues to spread throughout the world, killing wild birds and poultry en masse across the northern hemisphere, Africa and South America. Not only is this strain of bird flu wreaking havoc for birds, it is responsible for numerous cases in mammals, including humans. 

Now, researchers have confirmed that the highly pathogenic strain of bird flu responsible, called clade H5N1, was not detected in wild migratory birds arriving in Australia from their international migrations between September and December 2022. 

In a paper published in Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses, researchers at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute) and Deakin University collected samples from 817 migratory birds from September to December last year, which all returned negative results, and showed no evidence of previous exposure to the virus. 

Co-author of the paper, Dr Michelle Wille, a University of Melbourne Honorary Postdoctoral Researcher at the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza at the Doherty Institute, said the findings are critical to understanding the future risk of incursion of the virus to Australia. 

“Rapid detection is critical if we are to respond rapidly to the emergence of this virus in Australia, so it is imperative that we conduct heightened surveillance when the migratory birds return,” Dr Wille said. 

“While it seems that avian flu did not enter Australia in 2022, between September and November millions of migratory birds arrive in Australia from Asia and North America, such that we again enter a high-risk period in the second half of 2023.” 

Dr Wille recently co-authored another paper in collaboration with Deakin University that studied the strains of bird flu found naturally in wild Australian birds (called low pathogenic avian influenza) over 11 years and found that bird species and weather patterns, like El Niño, may significantly influence how the virus spreads. 

“Studies on low pathogenic avian influenza provide us with key information about how highly pathogenic avian influenza may spread in Australia so that we are able to rapidly set up enhanced surveillance if HPAI ever arrives,” Dr Wille said. 

Peer review: Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses
Funding: Australian Research Council (ARC)