Adding to our knowledge of avian influenza

Not all animals are equally likely to become ill, a research team including Professor Marcel Klaassen has found.

Professor Marcel Klaassen (left) in the field.
Professor Marcel Klaassen (left) in the field.

Not all animals are equally likely to become ill through avian influenza, a research team including the Director of Deakin University’s Centre for Integrative Ecology, Professor Marcel Klaassen has found.

The findings, part of a comprehensive research projects into avian influenza in two hemispheres, have been published in the Royal Society journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B in a paper titled: “Host behaviour and physiology underpin individual variation in avian influenza virus infection in migratory Bewick’s swans.”

“This paper is an important step towards increasing our knowledge about avian influenza,” Professor Klaassen said.

“We know little about how and why pathogenic infections vary between individuals in wildlife populations.

“Yet individual differences in infection shape the transmission and maintenance, the epidemiology, of pathogens.

“With wild aquatic birds being the natural hosts for avian influenza viruses (AIV), we used carbon stable isotopes to show that free-living Bewick’s swans foraging in aquatic habitats rather than on land were more likely to become infected with AIV (avian influenza virus).

“We also showed that juvenile swans were more likely to be infected, and experienced more intense infections.

“Together these results indicate that the foraging habitat and physiological condition of hosts can delineate individual variation in infection.

“There is a lot of activity in research into avian influenza currently underway and I expect a lot more findings will be released soon, so we have a better feel for how these diseases spread.”

Emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) are responsible for more than 70% of all the new human diseases that have arisen over the past century.

Notable examples include HIV/AIDS, SARS, Ebola and Hendra as well as both Avian and Swine Influenza. 

EIDs have the potential to have catastrophic effects on human health and economic prosperity, including significant threats to the livestock industry.

Whereas EID often originate from wildlife, there is also a reciprocal risk to wildlife itself involved.

Changes in land use, human and livestock distribution and climate all result in a redistribution of pathogens and hosts and the emergence of new contact zones.

At the same time due to environmental degradation, the immune system of wildlife may be impaired and wildlife may be more prone to disease and become a more important vector for EID.

“All in all, there is currently an increased potential for new health hazards and related risks,” Professor Klaassen said.

“Recently we also published a paper in the Australian journal, Emu, summarising the Avian Influenza situation in Australia.

“A call is being made to increase our fundamental understanding of disease spread within wildlife and their contacts with man and livestock, focussing on the development of mitigation and prevention strategies rather than cures, once havoc strikes.”

Deakin’s Centre for Integrative Ecology addresses the highly relevant and timely fundamental question how life reacts to (global) change, by promoting an integrative, multi-faceted, interdisciplinary research approach.

Ultimately this research aims to identify ways to mollify anthropogenic impacts on the environment.

Professor Klaassen recently featured in The Age article 'Deadly by nature'.

Professor Klaassen also recently featured on the Deakin Research Channel.

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