Bird flu is scary in the East, imports of chickens from Australia have been blocked

A few hours after theWHO recorded the first case of avian influenza virus H5N1 in Australia, the government of Philippines blocked all poultry imports from the country, which accounted for 4% of the total. The suspicion of the Australian authorities is that the infection of the patient who tested positive occurred in India, and not on their national territory.

Avian influenza has been seen for decades as the next possible global pandemic, due to the multiple occasions in which the virus can make a species leap. Its first effect, however, could be economic, with a growing distrust towards poultry products from countries affected by this disease.

Philippines blocks chicken imports from Australia

On the morning of 8 June the government of Philippines has decided to block all imports of poultry, including meat and eggs, from Australia. The reason is the outbreak of an outbreak of avian influenza within some states of the oceanic country. A decision not without consequences for Manila, which loses 4% of the total volume of imports of these goods in a single day, blocking the fourth largest importer from its market.

The Australian state of Victoria is dealing with two separate outbreaks of avian influenza in chickens. It's about the virus H7N3 and H7N9, among the pathogens that cause this disease in birds. The outbreaks initially originated between on May 23rd and 25th, but containment problems continue even weeks after the first cases. The problems on the farms were also highlighted by the first case of avian influenza in a human being in the country.

It's about a little girl of just over two years old, who was hospitalized with symptoms of the disease in recent days. After some analyses, however, both local authorities and the World Health Organization have confirmed that there is no link between the ongoing epidemic in Australian farms and this case. The little girl would in fact have been infected by the virus H5 N1, the same one that spread to some American farmers through cow's milk, which was itself infected due to the passage of species of the virus.

Further tests and checks then discovered that the family of the infected Australian girl had recently returned from a trip to India. The health authorities therefore traced the infection to an epidemic that broke out among animals in the country, thus ruling out the possibility that it could have occurred directly in Australia.

Cases of avian influenza in the world and WHO's fears

Bird flu is returning to the center of media attention. For several decades now, scientists have been warning that the family of viruses that causes this disease could be the source of the next global pandemic. In a similar way to what has been identified as the most probable origin of the SARS-CoV-2, these pathogens could in fact make a leap of species through a mutation and from there become able to pass from person to person. The reason this fear exists is poultry farms. In this context, people remain in contact with thousands of birds for a long time, increasing the probability that a specimen carrying one of the viruses will pass it to a worker, that the pathogen will mutate and that a pandemic could therefore develop.

At the moment the most monitored situation is that of the virus H5N1. The reason is an epidemic that is developing in the USA, particularly in the United States Michigan, on the border with Canada in the Great Lakes region, and the Texas, to the south, on the border with Mexico. However, the affected farms are not poultry farms but cattle ones. At the moment I am 83 outbreaks were recorded in 9 different states, but the situation is considered most serious in Texas and Michigan. However, the most probable cause of this infection does not appear to be a mutation of the virus, which therefore is not spreading from cattle to cattle. On the contrary, feed has come under fire.

In fact, in the USA the forage of cattle can be supplemented with “waste from poultry farming”, a practice banned in the European Union. The risk, however, is that a significant spread of the virus in mammals could act as an incubator for a mutation that makes it dangerous for people too. Furthermore, cattle farms are not subject to the same restrictions as poultry farms when it comes to preventing infection. In fact, the first cases in humans have already emerged from the US epidemic.

In total, three recorded cases of cattle farmers were infected with the virus H5N1 in the month of May. The number is not worrying and at the moment remains in line with the cases of contagion in 2023. Instead, the manifestation of the symptoms of the disease brought the experts to attention. In fact, initially the first two cases developed at an ocular level. However, the third showed respiratory symptoms. This detail is worrying because a respiratory infection has a much greater potential to spread than an eye infection. At the moment, however, H5N1 has not proven capable of passing from person to person.

The Italian chicken industry: what can happen

Before the health consequences, however, the Australian case demonstrates that avian influenza can have significant economic consequences. The country is the fourth largest poultry producer in South East Asia and Oceania and the spread of mistrust towards its products could damage thousands of companies working in the sector.

In Italy in 2022, the last year for which data is available, the poultry industry had turnover 7.4 billion euros, with Emilia Romagna among the regions hosting the most farms. An important sector for the Italian primary sector, which if affected by events similar to those in Australia risks suffering similar problems.

Prevention against cases of avian influenza in chickens therefore has both a health and health role economic. Keeping farms safe helps both prevent the infection from spreading to humans and prevent the Italian chicken industry from having repercussions from an export point of view.