Backyard chooks could be a biosecurity time bomb
Pet chickens can be exposed to wild animals, like bats, that carry diseases such as Hendra. (ABC News: Stephanie Smail)
Infectious disease experts have warned of a potential biohazard, literally in our backyards.
CSIRO research director for Health and Biosecurity Paul De Barro said there was a growing risk your humble chicken, pig or goat could contract a zoonotic disease, which can be deadly to humans.
Pets, particularly on the outskirts of towns and cities, are exposed to wild animals, like bats, that carry diseases such as the Hendra or Nipah virus.
“As urban populations spread out, they move into forested areas, natural areas and therefore you’re starting to come in closer contact with wild animals,” he told the PM.
“Climate change is also thought to be a factor, where you’ve got animals changing their behaviour; for example, flying foxes are becoming increasingly urbanised — 50 years ago, that wasn’t the case.
“When you get these shifts, the risk of a spill-over event goes up.”
Outbreaks hard to predict (and contain)
The risk is real for city residents too, Dr de Barro warned.
If a disease like avian flu started spreading, authorities would have no idea who had chickens, or where, because registration rules do not exist in most parts of Australia.
He said that would make containing an outbreak of disease impossible.
“What we don’t know is when they’ll happen, we don’t know the frequency and we don’t even know the scale or consequence,” he said.
“It could be a few people dying or it could be hundreds of people dying.”
CSIRO research director for Health and Biosecurity Paul De Barro says it’s hard to predict or contain an outbreak. (Supplied)
We do not yet have a good understanding of the conditions needed for a disease to move from wild animals to domestic ones and to humans.
“The surveillance we have for these sorts of zoonotic emerging diseases is very ad hoc,” Dr de Barro said.
“I can’t tell you why, or under what conditions, a virus like Hendra moves from a bat into a horse into a human, so it’s hard to make a prediction around likelihood.”
Ongoing national surveys of wildlife and the diseases they carry are crucial to reducing the risk, Dr De Barro said.
“We don’t really know what diseases are in our native birds, marsupials, bats,” he said.
“And we don’t monitor the frequency of these diseases, so I can’t tell you whether you’ve got a build-up of a virus in a particular animal on the outskirts of a particular city.”
Dr de Barro acknowledged outbreaks were few and far between in Australia, but he warned that they are on our doorstep.
“Just to our north is the Asian ‘hot zone’, the South-East Asian area where there’s a higher incidence of these spill-over events, because there’s people living near pigs and poultry and other wild animals,” he said.
Wash your hands
Owners of animals on smaller blocks or in backyards may not understand the biosecurity risks, according to Rob Barwell, the senior manager of Biosecurity for Animal Health Australia.
“When you consider we have tens of thousands of backyard owners and small farms spread around our cities and towns, collectively they do add up to being more of a risk too,” he said.
But he pointed out there were easy ways to reduce the risk, such as washing your hands.
“It can be really simple things like good hygiene after handling of animals and protective clothing, to a bigger, more-complex plan,” he said.
Inner Brisbane chook owner Tom Salmon told PM he was not overly concerned about biosecurity at this point.
He has had his four chickens — named Sparkles, Ruby, Rhonda and Dot — for about a year.
“I’d like to be able to live in the country, but it’s not practical with our work, so it’s nice to bring a bit of the country to the city,” he said.
“As soon as you get home, they run up to you and peck at your feet. It’s really nice.”
He has to clean up a lot of chicken poo, but he likes having a slice of rural life on his city block.
Chook owner Tom Salmon says keeping backyard chooks is part of the Australian experience. (ABC News: Stephanie Smail)
“I have heard of the avian flu of course, but we’ve grown up in Australia with chooks in the backyard and chooks on farms and I’ve never heard anything,” Mr Salmon said.
“If it is out there, they’d better pipe up and tell us a bit more about it.”