H5N6 outbreak in the Netherlands unlikely to pose major risks to Singapore: Experts

H5N6 outbreak in the Netherlands unlikely to pose major risks to Singapore: Experts

SINGAPORE: The recent H5N6 bird flu outbreak in the Netherlands is unlikely to pose major risks to the human population in Singapore even as migratory birds make their way to the Republic to spend the winter, experts told Channel NewsAsia.

The Netherlands confirmed an outbreak of the highly contagious bird flu on Dec 7. The outbreak on a duck fattening farm in Biddinghuizen killed 40 ducks and led to the culling of nearly 16,000 more.

Bird scientist David Tan said the likelihood of a migratory bird from the Netherlands making it to Singapore is "extremely low".

Migratory birds take several major flyways - or flight paths - between breeding and wintering grounds, with birds from the Netherlands taking the East Atlantic Flyway spanning across the North American continent to northwestern Europe and down to southern Africa. 

On the other hand, Singapore sits along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway - with birds travelling from China, Japan and the Russian Far East, along the coastline to Southeast Asia. 

According to the National Parks Board, more than 2,000 Arctic migratory birds make their way to Singapore annually, usually between September and March.

While both flyways largely span different parts of the world, there is one intersection in an area in Siberia where migratory birds cross paths, said Mr Tan. With this comes the risk of infected birds spreading the virus to those that eventually make it to Singapore's shores.

However, Mr Tan stressed, that there is a "very low likelihood" of the birds flying to Singapore and coming into contact with birds or humans here. 

He added that it was unlikely for migratory birds such as shorebirds to interact with domestic poultry, as shorebirds generally prefer coastal habitats while domestic poultry live in forested areas.

"There is always a risk of avian influenza breaking out in the region – it’s happened many times before already. But by and large, we are protected because we get relatively few ducks migrating here (and these are) the primary vectors, agents of dispersal of the virus," he said. 

Mr Tan added that Singapore has strict biosecurity and surveillance protocols in place.

According to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority, regular checks and surveillance on migratory birds and domestic poultry ensure viruses do not spread between poultry and humans. 

The authority has also temporarily restricted the import of poultry from the affected area in the Netherlands following the outbreak. It said no birds have been imported from the area this year.

Noting that there have not been any human fatalities in this latest outbreak, Mount Elizabeth Hospital infectious diseases specialist Asok Kurup said the outbreak has been largely contained thanks to containment measures implemented by the Netherlands. 

These include mass culling, as well as the establishment of a 3km surveillance zone and a 10km protection zone around the farm.

"The virus that’s circulating in the birds - even though it’s described as highly pathogenic to the birds themselves - may not necessarily be crossing over or adapting to the human population," said Dr Kurup. 

"Causing human disease is something quite different from causing disease in birds. So (it) doesn’t mean that just because the birds are coming down with illness … humans will come down with the disease.."

However, he warned that those with respiratory symptoms such as a cough or flu and who have had prolonged exposure to poultry should seek medical attention. He also advised members of the public to get a flu shot annually.

Source: CNA/mz