Australia bans imports of birds from Canada because of bird flu

Australian authorities said Friday they are banning the import of birds from Canada after three racing pigeons tested positive for bird flu antibodies. The birds were in a consignment of 102 pigeons that arrived in Australia on Sept. 3 and tested positive while being held in strict quarantine in the southern city of Melbourne, Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

He said the birds were not carrying bird flu, only the antibodies, indicating they had been exposed to the virus at some time.

"That could at some stage have developed into something else in the future," he said.

Quarantine spokesman David Finlayson said tests did not show which strain of bird flu antibodies the pigeons were carrying, but McGauran said they had them despite being certified disease-free by Canadian authorities.

It was not immediately clear where the birds had come from in Canada. Bird flu is difficult for humans to catch, but scientists are concerned that a particularly lethal strain now circulating, known as H5N1, could mutate into a form easily transmitted between people, triggering a possible human flu pandemic.

The virus has killed more than 60 people in Asia since late 2003, with most deaths blamed on direct contact with birds.

Jim Clark, acting director of the animal health and production program at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said the pigeons could have picked up the virus while flying among wild birds. "These are free-ranging birds, in other words they're racing pigeons, so that's what they do, they fly outside and they are exposed to wild bird populations," he told ABC radio. "It's possible that they could have, at some point in their lifetime, contracted avian influenza virus."

None of the imported birds was allowed out of quarantine and the three with bird flu antibodies were destroyed.

"Thankfully, Australia's quarantine system worked as it's meant to, that we didn't take the certification on face value even though it is coming from an advanced country," McGauran said.

"Australia will be imposing an immediate ban in the importation of birds from Canada until there is further and better reasons given for the errors made by the Canadian quarantine authorities," he added.

Prime Minister John Howard said his administration, which has stockpiled around 4 million of doses of anti-viral medication used to treat bird flu victims, was preparing for any potential bird flu outbreak and urged the public not to be alarmed, reports the AP. I.L.