While in the US, the Prime Minister announced that Australia is joining the new International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza (IPAPI). On 16th September he said,
The partnership will bring together concerned states to limit the spread of a pandemic. Every necessary step will be taken to promote international cooperation aimed at joint preventive action and to develop capabilities to respond to a pandemic threat.
The IPAPI should also complement and support the ongoing work on pandemics conducted through the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Organisation for Animal Health.
The Australian Government is working at the domestic, regional and wider international level on influenza and pandemic planning and response measures.
Australia is working to remain at the leading edge in planning for an influenza pandemic. The Australian Government has provided approximately $160 million over five years for national pandemic preparedness and response.
Australia’s involvement with the partnership will build on our existing work in the region to prepare for pandemic threats such as avian influenza. Our response to date has been both significant and strategic, with a contribution of over $18 million since 2003 to combat avian influenza and SARS in the region.
The Government believes that APEC provides another useful forum to promote regional cooperation on this important issue. APEC has been working for two years on preparedness and response to pandemic threats and initiatives to strengthen this work will be discussed at the Leaders’ meeting in November 2005.
Australia also supports a Canadian proposal to host an international meeting of Health Ministers to discuss global pandemic preparedness.
It is important that the world works together to coordinate our forward defence around the globe against a pandemic outbreak.”
I asked Roger Kalla what he thought about the announcement and he wrote back:
“The PM’s announcement from the UN 2005 World Summit summit outlining the coordinated global effort to develop capabilities to respond to a pandemic threat is an acknowledgement that the bird flu is a global problem that might be winging it down under.
What are we doing about it? The development of vaccines against the avian flu strain is being ramped up here in Australia and elsewhere but need to be tested and are 6- 12 months away . Governments and health scientists that realise the seriousness of this potential threat (including Peter Doherty Noble Prize winner in immunology) have quietly been stockpiling anti viral drugs such as Relenza, resulting in a doubling of the share price of local Biotech Biota that developed it.
However there are only 120 odd confirmed cases worldwide of infected humans, the majority being poultry factory workers that come in direct contact with infected birds.
The alarming fact though is that of these 120 cases half proved to be fatal. By comparison, only 10% of the victims of SARS in the 2003 outbreak died while it is estimated that the Spanish flu (which also originated from a bird flu strain) killed 2.5% of the infected population.
Another alarming find with possible repercussions for Australia is that migrating water fowl in Western China has picked up the avian flu (H51N) before departing their breeding grounds in their thousands at the end of the Northern summer.
The birds travel huge distances to their winter grounds. Some mingle with birds in Siberia that fly to South-East Asia or down to Australia. Just last month discovery of wild birds with H5N1 in western Siberia and the Altai region of south-western Russia made Holland ban free range domestic poultry. Germany is about to follow Holland and force all poultry indoors.
Just last week I was driving through South Gippsland on my way back to Melbourne and spotted one free range chicken and egg facility with hens roaming free around in the open. This free range facility is only a few kilometers away from one of the biggest feeding grounds for migratory wading birds in Australia, Corner Inlet . Avian flu could conceivably be transferred from infected migratory birds to chickens roaming the outskirts of Melbourne. This produce is finding a ready retail outlet in the thriving local Farmers Markets which have sprung up along the Highways and Freeways within easy driving distance from Melbourne.
I think it’s time for Australian Governments to take the next step and consider banning free range chickens. This will no doubt cause animal liberationists angst but it is a entirely rational precautionary approach to a potentially very serious pandemic.”
Roger also provided the link to this weblog from Nature specifically on birdflu: