Outbreak of bird flu in Japan – experts respond

SMCJ/AusSMC: On January 22 2011, a highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak was confirmed from a bird farm in Miyazaki prefecture, southern Japan. Currently, outbreaks have been reported in neighbouring Kagoshima prefecture as well. The outbreak has led to the culling of thousands of chickens in southern Japan.

The SMCJ has compiled some comments from experts on the outbreak:

Professor Koichi Otsuka, Director of the Avian Influenza Research Centre, Kyoto Sangyo University comments:

“High pathogenic avian influenza means that of all of the influenzas which affect birds, the majority of chickens who get infected by this highly lethal influenza will die. While bird flu itself will not kill a bird, birds who live in close quarters, such as chickens in poultry farms, repeatedly infect one other. This can lead to the virus changing into a more lethal strain. Now when a bird is infected with this dangerous virus, it usually dies within three to four days. The highly pathogenic avian influenza is only lethal to birds. Mammals are affected differently. Bird flu can infect humans, but in countries such as Japan where there is a high level of awareness towards hygiene, this rarely happens.

“To date, avian influenza types which have caused Japan problems were H5 and H7 viruses. These had outbreaks in the Taisho period (1912 – 1926), but over the last 79 years there have been no reported outbreaks.

“To stop any widespread infections, Japan has chosen to slaughter all of the chickens in the poultry farm where the outbreak was first reported, and follows up with thorough disinfection processes. This is the best way to create a clean, virus-free environment, and is also carried out in other developed countries. What is important is that as soon as symptoms are noticed, the necessary precautions are carried out to stop the virus from getting out of hand.

“Only in extreme cases have there been records showing humans had been infected with bird flu, so details about why or how these people were infected remain unknown. The WHO’s reports are only the tip of the iceberg and I think it is necessary to send a team into the outbreak zone to pin point the cause.

“In Japan, responsibilities are split between the Ministry of the Environment who deal with wild birds, and the Ministry of Agriculture who deal with poultry. However, there is only one pathogen. The virus in this case has been reported to have been brought in by a bird outside the country, but the H5N1 avian flu strain is one broken out from a chicken. This makes wild birds the victim. The ministries need to go beyond their boundaries and take the necessary moves to get bird flu under control. They need to get support from wild bird societies and share information in order to figure out the best way to block the virus from spreading between wild birds and domestic chickens. Because the situation is different in every region, it would be important to take measures suited to the community.”

Yuya Kimura, Vet, Hokkaido University Graduate School of Medicine comments:

“Not only does the highly pathogenic avian influenza threaten chickens and quails in the poultry industry, but it could also reduce the number or rare birds. We still remember what swine flu was like and cannot forget that there is a danger the flu might change into something that could infect humans.

“It might sound like a big story, but there are ways people can help individually.

“The possibility of house and school animals coming in contact with infected birds is not impossible, so try to keep your animals away from wild birds and keep their habitats clean. With proper hygiene control, you can reduce the chances of infection. There’s also no need to stop breeding programs because you’re scared of the disease.

“Please refrain from bringing wild animals together by doing things such as feeding wild birds. When animals gather in one place, it can help spread the disease. There shouldn’t be a problem with bird watching from a distance, but try to stay as far away as possible as people can act as carriers by stepping on the virus with their shoes, transporting it to another location. Try to stay away from where the initial outbreak was.

“Currently, if a domestic chicken is discovered to have been infected, the last resort is to cull all of the chickens in the area that might also be infected. There is only a small chance that infected products would make it to store shelves, and even if humans were to eat contaminated chicken or eggs, it’s unlikely that they’d be infected.”