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Australia Takes Strict Measures to Combat Import of Bird Flu - 2004-01-28

Australia is taking strict measures to try to keep bird flu out of the country, targeting visitors from Asian countries where the virus has devastated poultry and killed as many as 10 people.

The World Health Organization says the bird flu is spreading in Asia at what it called an "historically unprecedented" rate.

Australia has watched the spread of the avian virus, especially into its giant neighbor to the north, Indonesia, with a growing sense of nervousness and caution.

Should the epidemic enter Australia, farmers here believe it could devastate the country's more than two billion dollar poultry industry.

Chicken farmer Sean Roger says the avian virus has the potential to spread quickly. "Birds in close confinement, coughing and sneezing over each other and then they pick it up. It's a bit like an office or factory full of workers and one gets the flu it tends to go round the whole lot," he said.

Authorities in Canberra have moved swiftly to try to prevent the epidemic reaching Australia.

Australian airports intensified quarantine checks when the bird flu first appeared in Vietnam and have since destroyed tons of uncooked poultry meat and other products.

Customs officials were instructed late last year to increase checks on passengers flying into the country from Asia as the disease began to spread.

Quarantine officials now open all baggage from Asia. They have discovered meat products disguised with clothes and soap. Chickens, duck meat and feather pillows have been confiscated and destroyed.

In the southern city of Melbourne, an X-ray of an unclaimed suitcase revealed 11 kilograms of uncooked turkey.

Mail from overseas is also being X-rayed and sniffed by detector dogs as officials enter the first stage of a nationwide Emergency Animal Disease Response Plan.

Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has said he thinks it is not likely the epidemic will reach Australia. But government colleagues are worried about the effect that outbreaks elsewhere will have on Australia's lucrative tourism industry.

There are medical concerns that the virus could mutate to cause an epidemic even more deadly than last year's SARS outbreak.

Government health researcher, Dr. Brian Eaton, believes the danger is real. "It would become contagious by - let's say - mixing with a human influenza virus so that the new virus would have bits from the Avian virus and bits from the human virus and have the capacity to spread in the human population," he said.

The avian virus moves through the air from contaminated droppings from sick birds.

In Australia's most populous state, New South Wales, poultry farmers are still recovering from an outbreak of Newcastle disease, a highly infectious condition that has plagued poultry producers around the world for years.

Three million chickens were destroyed in New South Wales in 1999 and many businesses went bankrupt.

Farmer Sean Roger doubts the industry would survive any further setback. "We're still recovering from that - still paying off the debt. So to go through another major outbreak, I don't think we could survive another outbreak like the Newcastle disease," he said.

State governments across Australia are monitoring "bird kills" or unexpectedly large number of bird deaths to ensure that the avian virus has not already landed here.

One of the country's biggest weaknesses in defense against the disease is migrating water birds from Asia. Experts say the most dangerous time for Australia would be from August to September when the wild birds return for the spring.

The government in Canberra warned poultry farmers last November to keep water birds and wild ducks away from their farms.