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Bird flu most likely in Australia, scientists say

By Staff
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SYDNEY, Feb 23 (Reuters) Birds from neighbouring Indonesia have most likely brought avian flu to Australia's sparsely populated northern shores, but it is yet to be detected, two of the nation's top scientists said today.

''There is no magic curtain between Indonesia and Australia, and given the expanse of our land it would not be surprising if it was here,'' said Professor Mark von Itzstein from Griffith University in the state of Queensland.

''In my view it is highly likely,'' von Itzstein, who led the Australian team that developed the flu drug Relenza, told Reuters.

Another top bird flu expert, Macquarie University's Professor Peter Curson, agreed avian flu had probably reached Australia.

''There's certainly no doubt that parts of northern Australia, and perhaps slightly further afield, are on the normal flight path of migrating birds from parts of Asia and Southeast Asia, so I think it's a reasonable assumption,'' Curson said.

Australia and Indonesia are separated by the Timor Sea, which at the closest point would take only a day boat ride to cross.

In Indonesia, 19 people have died from avian flu. The Indonesian health ministry yesterday said tests showed a 27-year-old woman in the capital Jakarta had died of bird flu.

The WHO is yet to confirm the death is due to avian flu.

The highly contagious H5N1 avian flu has killed more than 90 people in seven countries in Asia and the West Asia since 2003 and two hundred million birds have died of the virus or been culled.

Alarm is growing at the sudden resurgence of the H5N1 virus as it spreads rapidly across Europe, into Africa and now India, where hundreds of millions of people live in rural areas side-by-side with livestock and domestic fowl.

Human victims contract the virus through direct contact with infected birds, but experts fear it is just a matter of time before the virus mutates and spreads easily among people, triggering a pandemic.

Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service said testing of wild birds in northern Australia had not detected avian flu.

''These species are waders and shore birds, so fortunately they're highly unlikely to come into contact with domestic poultry, and that's the serious risk for Australia,'' said spokesman Carson Creagh.

''We do conduct surveys every spring-time when migratory birds arrive and samples are sent off to the national reference libraries for testing. So far we're free of the disease and we're certainly hoping that we remain that way.'' Von Itzstein said his comments should not panic Australians as the vast majority of the country's 20 million people live in the far south of Australia, where few migratory birds reach.

But he said if migratory birds could spread avian flu across Asia to Europe and Africa, then it was only logical that infected birds would have reached Australia.

''It is quite a small stretch of ocean compared with the flights migratory birds do to northern Europe. We have to realise that we are not isolated,'' he said.

''It is clearly on the march in Europe, it is mobile, so there is no reason it is not going to be mobile towards us. It is highly likely that somewhere on the northern parts of the country, on the vast coastline, there are birds that have flu.'' However, von Itzstein said the arrival of infected birds did not necessarily mean the disease would spread in Australia.

''They could die, they could disappear, fly back,'' he said.

Reuters PDS VP0722

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