CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia will stage a simulated bird flu outbreak next week and the chief vet said on Tuesday the country faces a small but real risk the H5N1 virus could arrive with migratory birds.
Up to 1,000 people across 19 towns and cities would be involved in the simulation, which would test the response to an outbreak of H5N1 in chickens, Chief Veterinary Officer Gardner Murray said.
Observers from Britain, New Zealand and the World Organisation for Animal Health will monitor the exercise, which will run for three days from Nov. 29, but which will not involve any field operations or isolation of any farms.
Australia has not recorded any cases of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, which has killed 67 people in Asia since late 2003.
But since 1975 Australia has recorded five cases of bird flu in poultry involving strains of the H7 influenza subtype.
"One would assume that if farmers did not have very good bio-security provisions, this could occur again," Murray told reporters in a briefing.
"That is why we are conducting this major exercise."
He said the kind of birds that migrated to Australia from Asia were likely to carry only small amounts of the virus, lowering the chances of an outbreak.
Ducks, geese and swans were more likely to carry the disease, but those birds did not normally migrate from Asia to Australia.
"The probabilities of bird flu coming in from migratory birds are low, but they are real," Murray said.
He said the exercise was not designed to look at Australia's response to a bird flu pandemic, should the disease mutate into a form that could be passed from human to human.
In the northern state of Queensland, officials released a report on Tuesday into what could happen during a pandemic.
Under a worst-case scenario, people aged under 40 years were the most likely to be affected, with up to 35,000 deaths in the state and up to 15 percent of the state's workforce likely to be absent for up to eight weeks due to illness and school closures.
In Australia's main city Sydney, Health Minister Tony Abbott launched a new Web site, www.avianinfluenza.com.au, designed to help travellers understand the risks from bird flu.
Australia has a national emergency plan in the event of a bird flu pandemic, which would see tight border screening, hospitals cancelling elective surgery, discharging less serious patients and recalling medical staff on leave.
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