Victorian Pigeon Virus
Current disease outbreak in Victoria.
Update 23rd March 2017
Australian birds and International One Loft races
The Victoria Falls Race
Last week I was contacted by a German veterinarian who is a member of the FCI ( Federation Columbophile Internationale ). He was concerned that Australian pigeons were being entered in the Victoria Falls race in Zimbabwe. I contacted a South African vet who is a good friend of mine and the next day received an email from Geoff Armand, managing director of the Victoria Falls race. He and Dr Daz Karenga ( veterinarian for the race ) expressed concern about introducing Rota virus into this one loft race with Australian birds . They proposed doing a PCR test on each bird, holding them in quarantine for 30 days in Australia and then a further 30 days in South Africa . Only PCR negative birds that were still clinically normal at this time would be accepted. My advice was that the risk would be very low but not negated. I also advised that given that our understanding of the disease is still in its infancy that I would not be comfortable saying that this protocol would prevent entry of the virus. Two days later I received the reply below
“ I wish to confirm that we have made the decision not to accept any birds from Australia this year.
Thank you for your valuable advice.”
Based on the information and facts available to them, the organisers of the race decided that the risk was unacceptable. Given the fact that, presumably, only healthy birds were sent from Western Australia to the eastern states and that these birds were sent some time after the outbreak that occurred there and yet, the disease was spread I think this is the correct decision. It would be disastrous if the rapid spread of the disease and significant mortalities currently being experienced in the eastern states was replicated on the world stage. Although disappointing now it is hoped that in the future, once the Australian birds can be vaccinated, that they will once again be able to compete in these great international races .
Last week one of my nurses, Marcia Mc Donald, went to a fanciers loft which had been diagnosed with Rota virus 2 weeks earlier, Swabs were collected from the cloaca of 6 pigeons for a Rota PCR test. This test has been discussed in earlier posts. Essentially it detects the presence of Rota DNA. If the pigeon is shedding Rota virus in its droppings,( and therefore carrying the virus and infective,) when the test is done then the test will be positive. If the bird is not then the test will be negative. 5 of the 6 birds were positive and 1 was indeterminate. Swabs were also collected from a loft that was infected at the end of December ( 12 weeks ago ). In this loft swabs were collected from 10 birds. These were all negative. 6 new birds had been introduced into this loft several weeks earlier. None had become unwell. A pooled swab was collected from these 6 birds and submitted as a single sample. This test was also negative. Based on these very early results it appears as if the carrier state is somewhere between 3 and 12 weeks. Next Monday swabs will be collected from a loft 5 weeks post infection. Swabs will continue to be collected and tested until the length of the carrier state is determined .
So what significance do these results have?
1/ If the carrier state is less than 12 weeks this means that by the next breeding season the stock birds will not be carrying the virus. This, in turn, means that the new youngsters they produce will not be exposed to the virus ( provided it is over 6 months and there is no Rota in the environment). The youngsters will get some passive immunity from their parents but typically this is only short term and is likely to have gone by the time they are 8 weeks old . The thought was that this virus might behave like some other pigeon viruses, notably Herpes virus, and that youngsters would be exposed to the virus from their parents while still protected by the passive immunity and in effect be naturally immunised. With this now appearing unlikely it means that each new batch of babies will be potentially vulnerable to catching the disease.
2/ If the carrier state is as short as 4 weeks or less this means that quarantine may be a very effective way of controlling the spread of this disease. No one wants to confine their birds for months but 4 weeks is not too bad. Even though it is thought that Rota survives for several months ,perhaps as long as 6 months, in the environment it may be that with bird confinement and thorough disinfection a shorter quarantine time may be adequate
3/ Although these results are promising for a shorter carrier sate we still have to exercise care. It is possible that some carriers only shed intermittently. There is the potential that further testing will identify certain individual longer term carriers. Also with some viral diseases stress can reactivate the carrier state and reinitiate shedding . It may be, for example , that birds stop shedding the virus in their droppings after several weeks but continue to carry the virus in their liver ( where the virus is concentrated during active infection ) . Doing PCRs on the livers of survivors from lofts that were earlier infected would determine this . Clearly we still have much to learn.
Every day I am asked by fanciers questions about Rota virus. Common ones are - how long is the carrier state, can survivors become reinfected and do wild birds carry and spread the virus? Everybody wants to know the answers to these questions but what people often don’t seem to realise is that someone has to pay for the tests that answer these questions. Many people are donating their time for free but laboratory testing costs etc are unavoidable. At the moment the only testing being done is in Victoria and AgriBio ,other research organisations and Universities has been paying for all of it. Already they have been more than supportive and generous. This funding will come to an end. Grant Paterson, the treasurer of the ANRPB, tells me that he has contacted 63 pigeon clubs and Feds across Australia asking for a donation of $25 per member. Less than 20 have donated. Fanciers can be assured that all donated money is spent with great care with results being reported back to the fancy through the Board
Dr Travis Beddoe continues to work on the R and D for the vaccine. Over the next few weeks the trial vaccine will be given to 7 groups of 5 pigeons . 2 antigens representing different pieces of the VP8 protein ( highly antigenic section of Rota Virus ) will be produced. These will be mixed with 3 different adjuvants ( bases added to vaccines to enhance uptake and immunity development). There will be one control group. Birds will subsequently be bled and immunity assessed. Currently we are awaiting ethics group approval to do this ( this will seem silly to many fanciers given that new lofts are being infected and birds are dying but this is the way it has to be ). While awaiting this approval antigen production is continuing.
Rota Diagnosed in Tasmania.
Dr Mary Lou Conway , Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer, Animal Biosecurity and Welfare Branch, Biosecurity Tasmania has confirmed that Rota virus has been diagnosed in a pigeon loft in Devonport, Tasmania. The most likely way that the virus has reached Tasmania is by a pigeon being introduced from the mainland.
Personally I am surprised that any Tasmanian fancier would be prepared to bring in a pigeon from the mainland and perhaps more to the point that any mainland fancier was prepared to send a bird to Tasmania.
I have spoken to the fancier concerned today and he has not brought in any pigeons himself. He does however have a number of feral pigeons that regularly visit his yard and sit on his loft. He was aware of the health risk that they posed to his birds and has succeeded in trapping all but a few. If Rota virus has become established in feral pigeons in Tasmania, fanciers should take particular care to avoid their birds mixing with them.
I note on a Facebook page that a Queensland fancier has stated that I authorised ten pigeons to go from the mainland to Devonport in the last few weeks. This is definitely not the case. In fact my advice to Tasmanian fanciers has been that they approach the Tasmanian DPI to try and get the borders closed. Comments like this really are libellous and it is disconcerting that fanciers, for one reason or another put such information in the public domain. It would help us all, if fanciers checked the validity of information before putting it on line.
Carrier State Studies
Studies to determine the length of the carrier state for Rota virus continue. Over the last 2 weeks multiple cloacal ( vent ) and choanal ( mouth) swabs have been collected from both negative and positive birds to fully validate the new PCR ( DNA ) test developed by AgriBio. This week swabs have been collected from birds from lofts that have previously been diagnosed with Rota at different times in the past. The results should be available in the next few days.
Victorian fanciers are reminded that the epidemiology study will start shortly. The questionnaire has been completed and a list of Victorian club secretaries compiled. Club secretaries will be contacted over the next few weeks. Fanciers are strongly urged to participate and promptly return their completed questionnaire so that we can all learn and benefit.
Dr Travis Beddoe at La Trobe University who is in charge of R and D for the vaccine advises that all is on schedule. Dr Beddoe, Dr Mark White and myself are meeting in Sydney on 5th April to discuss progress.
Rota Information night at the VHA headquarters.
Last night the VHA hosted a Rota virus information night that was open to all fanciers . The night was well attended with 150 to 200 fanciers attending. A broad range of Rota related topics were discussed including the diagnosis of the disease, the pattern of disease, how the virus is spread including wild bird transmission, how long the virus survives in the environment, where did the virus come from, the carrier state, persistence of immunity, the vaccine manufacture and the upcoming epidemiology survey. There was a question and answer time that ran for over one hour where everyone was given the opportunity to have their questions answered and their concerns addressed.
From my point of view, I was surprised that some fanciers seemed frustrated by the lack of definitive information in some areas but failed to realise that getting this information is essentially in their hands. Many fanciers did not seem to realise that much of the information they were after was dependent on them submitting samples for testing. For example a number of fanciers wanted information on the influence that wild birds have on transmitting the virus. Frustratingly since Dr Mark Hawes asked fanciers to send in any sick or dead wild birds in the vicinity of confirmed infected pigeon lofts for testing only one bird, a feral pigeon, has been sent in. If fanciers don’t send in birds, AgriBio cant test them. Similarly many fanciers are assuming a diagnosis based loosely on the symptoms displayed by unwell birds. It is not possible to draw conclusions about the incidence of the disease and how it is spreading ,the effectiveness of treatments, anticipated mortality rates, effect of concurrent infections such as Circo virus etc etc if the disease has not been correctly diagnosed in the first place. Fanciers, I feel, need to take advantage of the interest and funding made available by the CVOU and AgriBio
Generally a good night was had by all and the atmosphere was upbeat and positive. I think most fanciers left with a better understanding of the disease while federation officials had more information on which to base decisions about this year’s racing.
Droppings and Rota virus diagnosis.
It is worth noting that some fanciers think that Rota virus can be diagnosed quickly and easily by examining the droppings. This is not the case. However when AgriBIo completes its validation of the Rota PCR test ( shortly ) this will be able to be done but it will only be AgriBio which will be able to do this complex test on behalf of fanciers and vets. It is most definitely not possible to diagnose Rota virus by simply looking at droppings under a microscope.
Streptopelia doves are the brown doves with white spots around their neck that are found in virtually every suburban back yard. They were introduced into Australia from SE Asia about 120 years ago. These are the top contender for carriers of the virus. It would be good if fanciers who think that their lofts might have had Rota virus , whether it has been confirmed or not , could capture any sluggish, unwell doves in their loft vicinity and present these to the Melbourne Bird Vet Clinic or their local vet for testing. If the vet is unfamiliar with Rota simply get him to call the Melbourne Bird Vet Clinic ( 03 9764 9000 ) so that testing can be organised.
I spoke yesterday to the owner of the second loft confirmed with Rota virus in Queensland. The loft is located at Gympie and is a commercial operation producing squabs for human consumption. As of yesterday 10 % of the birds had died. Abattoirs are not accepting birds for processing for 6 months
In a meeting at AgriBio tomorrow the Rota epidemiology questionnaire form will be finalised. Fanciers can expect to receive their form in the coming weeks. In my opinion federations which don’t support this initiative and fanciers who don’t complete the form when they receive it are simply letting the pigeon community down. The information gained will help us all. Your co –operation and participation is much appreciated.
Thank you to John and Linda Shore for making birds available for blood collection for further diagnostic work at AgriBio this week
An Investigation of Rotavirus infection in Victorian pigeons by the Chief Veterinary Officer’s Unit ( CVOU )
During a recent visit to AgriBio, Dr Jaimie Hunnam indicated that the Chief Veterinary Officer's Unit (CVOU) would like to do an epidemiology survey of Rota virus in Victoria. Epidemiology is the study and analysis of the patterns, causes and effects of disease. It is the cornerstone of evidence-based medicine by identifying risk factors for disease and its prevention. The results of such a study would be invaluable to the pigeon fraternity because they will show us how the disease is spread, how it behaves generally and importantly indicate its weak points so that informed decisions can be made about its control. Dr Hunnam explained that the study would not be very expensive, perhaps $10,000 – 15,000. I explained that, although this was more than reasonable for the amount of work involved, we would regard this as quite a lot and that our focus and expenses had to be used on protecting the Australian flock through immunisation. Several weeks went by and I was re-contacted by Dr Hunnam. She explained that the CVOU understood the situation and was prepared to help us by doing the survey if the pigeon sport would cover the cost of postage and printing. This would work out at $2.50 /member.
Clubs are invited to consider this offer. The secretaries of all Victorian federations and clubs in due course will receive a letter inviting their members to participate. In those that do, then with time, each fancier will receive a questionnaire.
I feel that this is a fantastic opportunity and although there will be some fanciers who criticise this initiative (because there always are), I would encourage all fanciers to complete and return their questionnaire. This is an easy thing to do and the knowledge gained will help us all . So please spare the small amount of time involved for our mutual benefit.
Victorian DPI pigeon Rota virus survey - letter to club and federation secretaries
Once again the DPI is helping the Victorian pigeon community. A study is being undertaken by Dr Jaimie Hunnam of the Chief Veterinary Officer’s Unit (CVOU ) within the DPI to investigate the recent outbreak of Rota virus infection in Victorian pigeon lofts. The Victorian DPI has provided fantastic service to the pigeon fraternity right from the beginning of the Rota virus outbreak with its rapid diagnosis and more recently with supported diagnostic testing. This new initiative has many advantages for the Victorian pigeon community and will further assist in controlling and resolving this problem. Victorian fanciers are strongly encouraged to assist in the study.
The study will be designed to answer a number of questions, including the following:
1. Define what happens when Rota infects a loft. What can fanciers expect to see? How does the virus behave? What does it cause ? What signs do the birds show? How long does the disease last.? How old are affected birds? Do all birds that become unwell die? What signs might alert the fancier that his loft has the disease? What signs make it unlikely? Etc etc
2. Confirm the true number of sick birds and mortality rates associated with rotavirus infection in Victorian pigeons
3. Confirm that the source of rotavirus to Victorian pigeons was from birds/owners originating from Western Australia and investigate whether the Kyabram event was the point source of the outbreak
4. Provide evidence on the source(s) of rotavirus transmission between lofts
5. Identify potential management practices to help fanciers minimise the likelihood of entry of rotavirus and to minimise the impact of rotavirus within a loft (e.g. stress minimisation; feed practices; biosecurity etc)
6. Track the movement of rotavirus in pigeons across the State, both in time and space
7. Assess the level of contact of pigeons with other bird and animal species, to determine the true likelihood of rotavirus transmission
How will the study be done ?
Within the proposed study, a questionnaire will be posted to all pigeon loft owners/fanciers in Victoria. In order to maintain the confidentiality of owners, the questionnaires will be provided to appropriate pigeon associations, with a cover letter, questionnaire and reply postage-paid envelope. The associations will be asked to apply an address sticker from their membership list, with the reply address to Agriculture Victoria. As the response rate from postal questionnaires can be as low as 10%, it is preferable that all loft owners in Victoria receive a copy by post. Loft owners will not be asked for their contact details and will only need to describe their location to the parish-level. Fanciers whose lofts have been diagnosed with the disease will be sent an additional in-depth questionnaire and/or will complete a phone interview..
Results of the study will be made available to the pigeon community.
It would be very much appreciated by the DPI if the Victorian pigeon industry would consider contributing to the costs involved in undertaking this project. This would predominately involve the costs of postage and materials which have been estimated at approximately $2.50 per owner . There is no cost to the pigeon fraternity for the actual study and results generated. This represents a tremendous opportunity to obtain a lot of accurate information about this disease in OUR state
It would be appreciated if secretaries could send their mailing address and number of required questionnaire copies to Dr Hunnam. Her details are below
BSc BVSc MVSc (Hons) PhD MANZCVS (Epidemiology) DipEdit
Principal Veterinary Officer (Epidemiology) Biosecurity
Agriculture, Energy and Resources| Agriculture & Rural Division
Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources
475 Mickleham Road, Attwood, Victoria, Australia 3049
T: +61 3 9217 4351
M: +61 448 449 623
DX: 211 278
AgriBio meeting today
Dr Travis Beddoe, Dr Mark White and myself met at AgriBio in Melbourne today. The meeting lasted for about 2 hours. Progress with the vaccine development and production was discussed. The vaccine release is well on track. We are expecting the vaccine to be available to fanciers in the latter half of the year and all going well could be available earlier. We plan to meet regularly over the next few months to “compare notes” and make sure everything is progressing as quickly as possible.
Sydney and Melbourne presentations
Next Monday, the 6th March I will speaking about all facets of Rota virus at the VHA headquarters in Notting Hill. All pigeon fanciers are welcome and the VHA is looking forward to hosting members of all federation and clubs. So please come along with all of your questions and concerns. The presentation will start at 7.30 pm. Plans are underway for a similar presentation by Dr Mark White and myself in Sydney in about 2 – 3 weeks
Thank you to fanciers Rob Taylor, Gary Church, John Van Beers and Andrew Spiliopoulos for making birds available for blood collection for further investigations into Rota virus by AgriBio. Fanciers who give their time and make birds available help us all understand the disease better.
Carrier state testing
How long do pigeons carry Rota virus in their systems after recovery from the disease? This is an important question because birds that carry the virus are infectious to other pigeons even though they may look normal themselves. AgriBio has developed a Rota virus PCR test that detects the presence of Rota virus. The test is still undergoing validation but should be ready for use in the coming weeks. To do the test a swab will simply be taken from the birds cloaca ( vent ). Groups of birds will be tested from confirmed lofts that were infected 1, 2 and 3 months ago. Carriers will be shedding the virus and be positive on testing. Once the carrier state ends, the virus will not be shed and the tests will become negative. As the first cases in Victoria were only 3 months ago we don’t have birds that were infected earlier but the trial will continue until viral shedding stops ( and therefore the length of the carrier state determined )
When can recovered birds catch the disease again ?
Plans are underway for testing to determine how long it is before surviving Rota birds are vulnerable to reinfection. Similar tests were done in 2013 for PPMV. Blood will be drawn every month and the level of immunity present determined. Once the level falls below the amount that is sufficient to protect the bird then we know that the bird will be vulnerable to catching the disease again.
Treatment aims, principles and suggestions.
What we need is:
1/ effective treatments to save as many birds as possible if they become infected.
2/ a vaccine to stop the birds becoming sick in the first place and
3/ ongoing disease investigations to learn how this virus behaves so that we can control the disease generally
In my capacity as vet for the ANPA, ANRPB and VHA I have so far restricted my activities to the second two. As most fanciers would be aware I have been retired for over 3 years now. Increasingly however I am being asked to make treatment suggestions. In an update last week I provided a review of treatment options. At the end of this update I will make some specific suggestions. Although I no longer work at the clinic, fanciers will find the fully qualified avian vets at the Melbourne Bird Veterinary Clinic to be very familiar with Rota and keen to help.
General treatment principles.
There is no cure for Rota virus but there is supportive treatment that aims to keep the birds alive while the virus runs its course. When Rota enters a loft all birds become infected. In many birds the virus remains in the bowel. These birds may remain well or show mild symptoms. In some birds the virus penetrates the bowel wall and is carried in the blood to the liver and kidney. These birds become severely unwell and the majority will die without good supportive treatment. It has now been 12 weeks since the first Victorian cases and we are starting to get an idea as to how birds affected by the virus respond to various treatments. We are now at the stage where suggestions can be made, based on treatment response observations, that are likely to alter outcomes. The more severely affected birds often stop eating and drinking. With Rota virus infection this leads to a rapid decline with these birds becoming dehydrated, hypoglycaemic ( low blood sugar ) and hypothermic ( unable to maintain a normal body temperature ). Unless these processes are corrected they quickly progress to a fatal end. With correct management these trends can be reversed and the bird survive. What a fancier notices in the loft, is a bird that becomes fluffed up, reluctant to move, has vomiting and diarrhoea and often goes to a corner. Because of the rapidly progressive nature of this disease prompt action is imperative
Supportive treatment aims to keep sick birds hydrated and in a positive energy balance so that normal body functions can continue and they can keep themselves warm. Mildly affected birds can be managed as a flock. Once birds stop eating they are provided with easy to digest, high energy vitamin and mineral rich, liquid food that is given via crop tube. These foods are usually offered more frequently in smaller amounts. Debilitated birds often have delayed crop emptying and if the crop wall is inflamed eating a large meal just stretches an already irritated crop and triggers a vomiting reflex.
Offering supportive treatment to unwell birds to try and save their lives can either be done in a complex (and sometimes expensive way) or a simple way. Most avian vets find it easiest to crop feed debilitated birds with commercially available hand rearing formulas made for seed eating birds such as parrots. Being formulated for an immature growing bird they are easy to digest and contain higher levels of vitamins , amino acids and minerals than those found in adult rations. No vitamins or minerals need to be added as everything the unwell bird needs is in the formula already. These formulas are ideal to treat pigeons debilitated with diseases such as Rota. These preparations are available as powders . Warm water is added until a smooth creamy preparation is prepared. This is fed via crop tube. A common brand used is Passwells hand rearing food
I will make reference to Australian Pigeon Company products. I do this because they are registered products that have been formulated by avian nutritionists employed by the APC. Their quality is beyond doubt. If fanciers however would prefer to use other similar products they should achieve the same treatment outcomes
For the flock the most important things are to maintain hydration and electrolyte balance and protect the normal population of bowel bacteria
1/Probac ( an avian probiotic )- added to the food all the time until vaccine is available.
2/PVM Powder (Pigeon vitamin mineral powder, a pink powder) - always available, unwell pigeons will naturally seek this .
3/At the onset of illness add rehydrating solution, Electrolyte P180 and fennel tea to the drinking water. Continue until the end of the outbreak (usually 7 days)
Monitor the loft every few hours for unwell fluffed up birds. Birds that stop eating will need to be crop fed and receive medication
1/ Prepare the formula - Add Probac to warm water at the rate of 1 tsp / 2 L. Prepare the Passwells hand rearing formula by adding this warm water until a creamy consistency is achieved. Usually water is added at between 1 and 6 parts water to 1 part powder. Make it more dilute if the crop is slow. Give small volumes of formula at a time,usually 2 -20 mls. If the crop is slow give smaller amounts more often. Do not add additional vitamins or minerals as this will seriously alter the balance of essential nutrients in the food. Everything the unwell bird needs is in the formula already.
2/ Give Baytril* - pigeons should receive 5 to 15 mg twice daily, as Baytril contains 25mg/ml this gives a dose of 0.2 -0.6 ml twice daily. If the crop is emptying the Baytril can be placed in the formula, if not the Baytril will need to be given by injection.
3/ Pigeons with slow crops often get wet canker therefore give 1/4 Flagyl 200* once daily or a Spartix* once daily
4/ Unwell birds of particular value are best taken to an avian veterinary practice for more intensive treatment
*N.B. Baytril, Flagyl and Spartrix are prescription medications and can only be given with veterinary authorisation/prescription
PMV fact review.
It is concerning that one third of suspect Rota cases subsequently turn out to be PMV when diagnostic testing is done. It is worth quickly reviewing the PMV facts
1/When birds are initially vaccinated, 2 vaccinations given 2 to 4 weeks apart confers protective immunity in 100% of pigeons
2/ After 12 months 10 % of birds are vulnerable to reinfection and disease. Each month after this the percentage steadily climbs. Annual boosters are recommended
3/ Vaccinated birds to not carry the virus as the vaccine is a killed vaccine
4/Birds that have had the disease carry the virus for 60 days and are infectious to unvaccinated birds during this time
5/ The virus survives for 60 days in the environment
6/ A single vaccination confers immunity in 80% of birds
7/ Youngsters bred from birds that have been vaccinated in the previous 12months acquire some passive immunity from their parents, which protects them for the first 4 weeks of life. This passive immunity in some youngsters is high enough to prevent them from developing their own immunity from vaccination until after 6 weeks of age. Youngsters that receive their first vaccination before 6 weeks will need 2 vaccinations 2 -8 weeks apart after 6 weeks of age to ensure immunity.
8/Birds that are overdue for their annual booster by less than 12 months still have enough immunity to survive and usually only develop mild symptoms if infected
9/The vaccine is completely safe and is recommended by 99% of Australian avian vets, the APVMA and all state and federal veterinary departments
10 Small numbers of vaccinated birds can experience transient neck soreness or other complications at the inoculation site. This is usually due to operator error. No effect on general health has ever been demonstrated.
11/ The dose recommended by the Australian Veterinary Medicine Authority and the manufacturer ( Zoetis ) is 0.5 ml at each innoculation
1/ Fanciers whose lofts have had Rota are reminded to monitor their loft environment for sick or dead wild birds. Dr Hawes at AgriBio is keen to identify any other birds that may carry Rota. Fanciers should contact the MBVC on 03 9764 9000
2/ It appears that AgriBio has isolated the Rota virus. A PCR test is being developed so that studies to determine the length of the carrier state can be done.
3/ Agri Bio will be running an epidemiology study of Rota in Victoria. More on this shortly
4/ The next meeting between Dr Beddoe, Dr White, Dr Swanpoel and myself to discuss progress on the vaccine is next week at AgriBio.
5/ Blood is being collected from survivors for further immunological studies at AgriBio
A Time to Reflect
It is now only about 12 weeks since Rota first appeared in Victoria. In that time the disease has been diagnosed, various potential vaccines have been examined for cross immunity, much has been learned about the virus and we are already 3 weeks into making our own vaccine . A great amount has been achieved but unfortunately, since 1968 when I first started racing, I have never seen the pigeon fancy so divided. The basic division is centred on whether or not to race. Of course all fanciers would prefer to race but while some have chosen to race others are more comfortable not racing this year. Reasons are varied. The main reason that fanciers choose not to race is that they feel that racing puts their birds at an unacceptable risk and prefer to postpone racing until they can immunise their birds. They state that the advice from the state and federal CVOs and ANRPB supports their decision. However many of those who choose to race feel that it is inevitable that their birds will catch the virus, so they may as well be exposed to the virus now and even though some of their birds will die the survivors will have developed sufficient immunity to be raced this year.
Various parties try to push their own point of view. I feel that this is all OK as long as an intelligent, reasoned and informed discussion takes place. Some who want to race state that the mortality rates in infected lofts are much lower than others claim, that the vaccine will be years in the making or indeed never be available or that the vaccine will be incredibly expensive,that recovered birds are immune for life and that the carrier state ( and therefore the time that birds are infectious ) persists for only a short time. Others state that the advice from the state and federal chief veterinary officers is just that, only advice and does not have to be taken.
What the sport needs is the presentation of facts so informed decisions can be made. Some fanciers believe what they are told from unreliable sources. Sometimes fanciers stretch the truth to their advantage. Some behave a bit over zealously to the point where the stretching of the truth becomes a lie while others just choose to lie and, worse still, start to criticise people who hold different views.
Recently a fellow fancier forwarded this email to me that he had received
“You ask the question on the forum, how did the virus get to Melbourne 6 months later. I don't want to post this on the forum, but I will tell you privately, as people are saying that I am trying to discredit Walker. I am not trying to discredit no one. I am merely pointing out, what he himself announced.
Dr.Walker had birds from western Australia in his possession, for 8 months, when the vigorous hit Melbourne. These birds I have been told were transported in an open basket to Melbourne, via QANTAS air freight. He announced this himself on the radio. Listen to the montage. Who is to say these birds didn't spread the virus?”
My reply was
“I have never had a bird from WA. Birds were sent to the University of Melbourne in June for diagnostic purposes. I organised this but never saw , handled or was anywhere near the birds. They were transferred directly from the airport in a secure fashion by University staff into the University’s biosecure area. Samples were collected and the birds euthanised that day. The first cases in Victoria occurred in the middle of December 6 months later. Please pass this information onto “name deleted” and ask him to place it on the forum so there is no confusion. Thank you.”
When anyone listens to the relevant radio session this confirms exactly my reply. This sort of thing just takes time away from the real jobs at hand, which are learning about the virus, developing effective treatments and making the vaccine
Fanciers should remember that when we criticize each other we just hurt ourselves because without each other we don’t have a pigeon sport and if there is no pigeon sport then everything we are currently doing about Rota virus is just a waste of time.
On Friday the first case of Rota virus infection was diagnosed in Cranbourne. Cranbourne is south east of Melbourne and is just north of the Mornington Peninsula. There are a lot of flyers in the area and in fact the infected loft is only about 1 kilometre from my own loft. Until Friday the closest infected loft to this area was at Dandenong which is about 20 Km away. The fancier has advised that his birds have not been out for several months and similarly he has not had any fanciers visit or indeed visited another loft himself. Just how the virus got to this location remains unclear but we have had several other similar situations before. As mentioned in an earlier update, AgriBio is investigating the role of wild birds transmitting the disease. At the Melbourne Bird Veterinary Clinic we had 2 other confirmed outbreaks last week. Both of these were in lofts in the north west of Melbourne where in fact the vast majority of confirmed cases are located
Treatment of Rota virus.
It is a difficult time for the pigeon community at the moment. Although work on vaccine development is progressing we are still dealing with an advancing highly infectious, high mortality disease. Fanciers obviously are keen to do what they can to save as many of their birds as possible should they be unlucky enough for their birds to catch the disease. In this time of uncertainty people will be keen to try treatment options and similarly there will be people who try and exploit this . I have endeavoured to provide some information on various treatments that are likely to be beneficial. It is difficult to make specific recommendations regarding treatment. The number of accurately diagnosed cases in the whole country remains small although the number of suspected cases continues to grow. To evaluate the benefit of any treatment, trials would need to be run on a number of confirmed cases and the outcomes compared taking other variables into consideration. Overseas studies are not of great value because this type of Rota disease that involves the virus leaving the bowel and getting into the liver and kidney only occurs in Australia. There is no specific treatment for Rota virus infections in people or other animal groups. Similarly antibiotics and antiviral drugs are not thought to help in Rota infections in people or other animals. Preventing dehydration is the biggest concern. However it is logical that the following treatments are likely to be of benefit.
Electrolytes/ rehydration solutions
As mentioned above preventing dehydration is the main aim of most Rota virus treatments. Birds lose water every day through natural body functions. Dehydration occurs when they lose more body fluids than they are taking in. Water is great for replacing fluids but when dehydration occurs it is really important to replace electrolytes as well. Electrolytes are mineral salts that are normally found in what pigeons eat and drink. Electrolytes balance fluids in the body, maintain proper blood ph and carry electrical signals to nerves and muscles. Water does not have enough electrolytes so for dehydration just drinking water is not enough. For proper hydration both fluids and electrolytes need to be replaced Bodies need a balance of fluids and electrolytes to work well. The most common cause of the loss of fluid and electrolytes in pigeons( that are not actually racing) is diarrhoea and vomiting. Diarrhoea and vomiting that comes on severely and suddenly as occurs with Rota virus, where death can occur within 12 - 24 hours of the onset of symptoms, can cause a quick loss of a lot of fluids and electrolytes. Using a veterinary rehydration solution specifically formulated with the optimal balance of sugars and electrolytes that are needed to replenish vital fluids, minerals and nutrients would be expected to reduce mortalities. When managing a Rota virus outbreak a rehydration fluid should be given as soon as symptoms are noticed and continued until signs have abated ( about 7 days ). There are a number of brands available. It does not really matter which one you use as long as you use a veterinary brand that is registered for that purpose. All contain blends of sodium, potassium, chloride and sugars. It is important that products registered for use in birds are used and that the manufacturers recommendations are followed as over-dosage can make the dehydration worse. There is no harm in giving rehydration fluids to birds that are not dehydrated. For those fanciers wishing to use an Australian Pigeon company product the product is called Electrolyte P180. This is fully registered specifically for this purpose in pigeons. ( Some fanciers may be keen to criticize me for mentioning my own companies product. I mention it for completeness and because I think it is excellent for this purpose. Of course fanciers may choose to use other registered brands )
Initial evidence suggested that there may be some benefit in treating birds with antibiotics at the onset of symptoms. Common antibiotics used have been Sulpha AVS or Baytril ( or similar brands ).There are only a small number of lofts where the disease has been accurately diagnosed and so it is difficult to draw definite conclusions but it may be that treating with antibiotics is not of benefit in many lofts. In several cases of Rota, a secondary E. coli infection has been detected. In these cases the E. coli did not cause death. Birds die of an overwhelming Rota viral hepatitis but it may be that by treating the concurrent E. coli infection these birds are more likely to “fight off” the Rota .
There are some viral diseases where giving antibiotics can be of benefit. In these diseases the antibiotics help by decreasing bacterial migration across the wall of the gut and the subsequent production of toxins that set up an inflammatory sequence. This in turn decreases the chance of viral invasion across the bowel wall and therefore a viraemia ( virus getting into the blood ) developing . By preventing the virus getting into the blood, the virus cannot reach the liver and cause the viral hepatitis that is the cause of death. However some of the lofts that experienced high mortalities gave antibiotics as recommended while some lofts with low mortalities did not give antibiotics. I guess all we can say at the moment is that there is no correlation when looking at cases confirmed by the larger pathology services with antibiotic use and the mortality rate. It is worth noting that antibiotics are not routinely used in the treatment of Rota virus infections in people and other animals
As discussed in an earlier update giving a live vaccine such as the ND4 for PPMV can stimulate the release of an immune mediator called interferon that is thought to give some protection against any virus for about 2 weeks. This is not really practical if people just have one loft and the birds are already sick but if for example a fancier had 2 lofts in his yard and Rota was identified in one ,vaccinating the second loft before the birds started to show symptoms may be of benefit.
Within the bowel of a healthy pigeon a population of bacteria exist. These bacteria perform many beneficial functions including helping with digestion and nutrient absorption. One of their very important functions is to protect from disease. They do this in a number of ways - by producing protective slime layers, maintaining a weakly acidic environment, setting up a physical barrier of bacteria, preferentially occupying receptor sites etc etc. Any stress can upset this population. Supplementing with probiotics helps maintain this population of bacteria and makes it harder for harmful bacteria and viruses to both cause disease in the bowel and also to penetrate the bowel wall. Probiotics are perfectly safe and can be used all the time. In a vulnerable loft they can be used continuously. Many brands can be added to the water or grain. Probiotics would be expected to make it harder for Rota virus to cause disease in a loft. One would expect that the number of birds in which the virus could penetrate the bowel wall would be lower . This, in turn , would mean that a smaller number of birds would die. There are 2 brands of probiotic registered for use in pigeons and caged birds in Australia. Vetafarm has a product called” Probotic”. The Australian Pigeon Company’s registered preparation is ‘Probac’. The dose is 1 tsp to 2-4 L of water or i/2 tsp to the grain of 25 birds.
The crop and bowel contain muscles in their walls that contract and advance ingested food. When these organs become damaged through infection they function less efficiently. This causes delayed crop emptying and prolonged passage along the bowel. Anecdotally fennel tea has been shown to help stimulate crop emptying and maintain normal bowel function. Fennel tea can be purchased from health food stores. Simply make a cup of fennel tea as you make a cup of normal tea for yourself. This can then be added to the drinker. There is no strict dose rate. It smells like licorice but unless mixed too strongly the birds drink it readily. Chlorophyll, the natural substance that makes plants green, also available from health food stores, has also been shown to stimulate the crop to empty. The green powder can be added to the drinker until it turns pale green.
So what to do
1, Consider using probiotics on the food or in the drinker all the time. I prefer to place them on the food as they are fragile and can deteriorate in a drinker. Seed can be pre moistened with a seed oil before the probiotic is added
2, At the first sign of symptoms start rehydration solution and Fennel tea together in the drinker.
3, The jury is out on antibiotics. We just need to have more suspect birds presented for accurate diagnosis, examine these microscopically and then discuss with the fanciers what they gave to their birds. By the time a bird is looking sick the virus is probably already in the blood and antibiotics are unlikely to have any benefit. Antibiotics given in the water will interfere with probiotics and rehydration formulas can interfere with antibiotics. Valuable birds in an infected loft which still appear well can be given antibiotic injections. A single Baytril injection lasts 24 hrs . This could be repeated daily until the outbreak has passed. (5 – 7 days ). Daily injections with the same active ingredients as Sulpha AVS are also available.
Rota virus diagnosed in Queensland. Advice from Dr Amanda Lee
I have received the following advice from Biosecurity QLD:
'Laboratory tests have confirmed the presence of rotavirus in pigeons in a loft in the Wide Bay region of Queensland. This is the first detection of rotavirus in pigeons in Queensland.
The disease in the present case of rotavirus presented as lethargy, watery-green diarrhoea, and crops filling up with water and mucous, progressing to death. The clinical signs have now abated in this loft , but more than 100 pigeons, or 10% of the loft, have died since mid-January. This presentation is similar to that seen in lofts affected by rotavirus in other states.'
Pigeon owners are encouraged to be vigilant on their biosecurity. There is no vaccine available against rotavirus.
If you see unusual disease or high rates of sickness or death, please seek veterinary advice and contact Biosecurity Queensland on telephone 13 23 25. There is no requirement on movement control or destruction of infected birds, but it is important to observe general biosecurity obligation to prevent any spread of the disease in Queensland.'
Work continues on the vaccine. Dr Travis Beddoe, Dr Mark White, Dr Dale Swanepoel and myself will meet at AgriBio in 10 days to discuss progress. In the meantime work continues “hell for leather” . There is a lot to be done but we are all committed to making the vaccine available as quickly as possible.
Investigation of the potential effect of Rota virus on native and free flying feral birds
Agribio is keen to investigate mass mortalities of free living feral or native birds that occur near lofts affected with Rota virus. Fanciers who notice this should contact the Melbourne Bird Veterinary Clinic on 03 9764 9000. Fanciers are encouraged to present birds for testing, so that the understanding of this disease can continue to develop. Please note that only freshly dead or euthanized birds will be examined.
Please click the links below to open
A release from the office of the Australian Chief Veterinary Officer on Pigeon Rotavirus Disease (PRD) 13th February
Australian Chief Veterinary Office - Rota Virus update
DPI - Rota Virus Update
I live in WA. My loft was infected with Rota virus in mid-2016. I have bred some healthy looking babies this season. Could these babies spread the virus?
All youngsters bred from surviving stock birds at the time of the outbreak will become infected with the virus and some will die in the nest or be weaned as weakened babies. However youngsters bred months after the outbreak, even within the carrier period or in a contaminated loft can be expected to be quite healthy. It is thought that this is because the level of immunity in surviving stock birds rises with time and these stock birds not only expose their babies to the virus but also pass their own immunity to the youngsters through the egg and crop milk. This means that these apparently healthy youngsters are in fact infected with the virus and even though they don’t look sick themselves, can spread the virus into previously uninfected lofts. This is not only thought to happen with Rota virus but does happen with other common pigeon viral diseases such as Herpes virus.
Statistics on Rota Virus.
Fanciers need to be mindful of drawing conclusions about “cases” of Rota that have not actually been diagnosed. There is currently a tendency among some fanciers, if they have a few birds that have diarrhoea and are vomiting and a few have died, to assume a diagnosis of Rota virus. They then tell their friends. Word then quickly spreads that the fancier has the disease and conclusions are drawn about the way the disease behaves even though a Rota infection has not actually been diagnosed in that loft. AgriBio has asked vets to only refer cases to them for diagnostic work if there is a strong suspicion of Rota. Diagnostic testing is costly and ties up resources. At the Melbourne Bird Veterinary Clinic ( MBVC ), we have 3 qualified avian vets on staff that review pigeon cases and only refer those to AgriBio if they think they are cases of Rota. For other cases, the necessary samples for diagnosis are sent to private labs. Even so, about one-third of the cases sent to AgriBio turn out to be something else. If the symptoms of other diseases can mimic Rota sufficiently in a veterinary situation, how can a fancier in his backyard make a diagnosis of Rota. In one recent case, a fancier stated that his loft had been infected with Rota but only a few of his birds had died. He told the attending vet that this was due to his birds being so healthy because of all the vitamins and other supplements he gave them. When his test results came back, it turned out that his birds had vitamin poisoning through over supplementation! The most common problem mistaken for Rota, as shown by testing, is PMV although other viral, bacterial, parasitic and management problems are all in the mix. One interesting thing that I have noticed is that people who are keen to race this year are promoting that the disease kills less than 5% (and sometimes even lower numbers) of birds. Rota is a disease with a significant mortality rate. Any fancier who has been told that their birds have Rota and lose less than 5% of birds should get a second opinion as this casts doubt on the diagnosis. Without an accurate diagnosis, no conclusions can be drawn about any case. Any conclusions drawn from lofts that have not been fully diagnosed are invalid and simply just cloud the issue. An accurate diagnosis involves testing by experienced pathologists at established labs.
So what do we know? At the MBVC we have had 10 confirmed cases of Rota. Yesterday I rang each of the owners and this is what they said. I have placed them in chronological order:
Diagnosed 15th Dec. 44 of 160 birds died. Mortality rate of 27%. 4 of 70 young birds died. 40 of 90 old birds. 80 % of birds that had returned from 500 and 600 mile races in 2016 died. The stock birds were kept paired (to minimise stress) after the disease , the youngsters they produced died in the nest. Birds treated with Trimidine (a brand of trimethoprim /sulphadiazine) antibiotic.
Diagnosed 16th Dec. 70 of 200 birds died. Mortality rate of 35 %. 50 of 120 older youngsters died. 20 of 80 stock birds died. No recently weaned youngsters died. Treated with Doxy T (doxycycline /tylosin) antibiotic blend and garlic.
Diagnosed 20th Dec. 20 of 76 birds died. Mortality rate of 26%. 17 of 50 older youngsters died. 3 of 26 stock birds. Disinfected loft daily. Treated with Sulpha AVS (a brand of trimethoprim/sulphadiazine) antibiotic and vitamins.
Diagnosed mid Dec. 35 of 160 birds died. Mortality rate of 22%. 19 of 70 youngsters died. 2 of 20 2-year-old and 14 of 70 stock birds. The stock birds were kept mated but many of the nestlings produced died at 10 to 12 days of age. In one section, the 10 nestlings in 5 nests all died. Surviving nestlings in other sections grew heavily ‘fretted ‘ feathers. Treated with Sulpha AVS.
Diagnosed 30th Dec. 14 of 154 birds died. Mortality rate of 9 %. All 14 of these deaths occurred in a group of 86 weaned youngsters. 0 of 68 stock birds died. Concurrently infected with Circo virus. Treated with Sulpha AVS. Loft disinfected. Some Magpies in the back yard looked sick and some were found dead.
Diagnosed 20th Jan. 11 of 170 died. Mortality rate of 6%. 0 of 30 youngsters died. 11 of 140 mature birds. Not a racing loft, mainly Middle Eastern breeds. Treated with Sulpha AVS, VE powder (which according to the fancier is a herb tonic) and Probac (a brand of probiotic).
Diagnosed 23rd Jan.. 36 of 130 died. Mortality rate of 27%. No youngsters died. 20 of 25 2-year-old hens died. 6 of 20 2-year-old cocks died. 10 of 40 stock birds died. Treated with Sulpha AVS. Found 30 dead Indian mynahs in yard. Doves share bath water with pigeons.
Diagnosed 23rd Jan. 55 of 150 died. Mortality rate of 36 %. 22 of 55 first-round youngsters died. 15 of 22 white racing pigeons died. 4 of 30 stock birds died. No second- or third-round youngsters of 26 died. Treated with Sulpha AVS.
Diagnosed 23rd Jan. 6 of 97 died. Mortality rate of 6%. 1 of 70 youngsters died. 5 of 70 stock birds died. Did not give antibiotics. Disinfected loft, drinkers and hoppers with “Domestos “. Treated with Fennel tea. Fennel tea anecdotally increases the rate of crop emptying and helps prevent gut stasis (failure of the bowel to contract and advance contents normally).
Diagnosed 1st Feb. 16 of 110 died . Mortality rate of 14.5 %. 2 of 70 youngsters died. 12 of 20 2-year-olds died . 2 of 20 stock birds died. Treated with Sulpha AVS. Loft drying/disinfectant agent applied to floor after cleaning.
So what conclusions can be drawn. Because the sample is very small unfortunately not a lot but certain observations can be made. Some fanciers record keeping and memories were better than others . One fancier initially advised a certain number of deaths but then later said that only a third of that number had died. However based on the figures we have, mortality rates range from 6% to 36 % with the average being 19.3 %. One has to wonder whether the prescribed antibiotics are really modifying outcomes. One of the lofts with the lowest mortality rate only gave Fennel tea. Most fanciers noticed that deaths peaked about 4 days after the first birds were noticed to be unwell. All fanciers reported that deaths stopped after 7 days. Most fanciers said that all birds that became unwell died while other birds in the loft remained quite normal. All fanciers reported that the survivors appeared particularly well in the first few weeks after the disease. It is unusual that so many mature and apparently robust birds died. Many pigeon diseases cause more severe disease and higher mortalities in young birds. This is not apparent here. We still have much to learn . Getting an accurate diagnosis and meaningfully interpreting the results is paramount to developing our knowledge and understanding of this disease.
Click links below to open
The ANRPB Rota Virus Press Release
The VHA Rota Virus Information night flyer
We had a 2 hour meeting this morning at AgriBio. Experts from AgriBio, Deakin University, Animal Science at LaTrobe University and AAHL were all involved. A robust, productive discussion was held. Topics discussed included testing to calculate the length of time of the carrier state, the persistence of immunity in survivors from infected lofts, the virus’ effect on other bird species, the possible effect on chickens, the evaluation of cross immunity from a molecular and biological perspective, the incidence, distribution and possible control of the disease, how the virus acts in the body, why only some birds get sick, funding, government approval permits and of course all aspects of vaccine development and manufacture.
I have been again advised that the vaccine could be available as early as the end of this year but will be ready no later than Feb/March next year.
Risk of transfer of virus at pigeon club meetings.
At the Kyabram sale where the first infected birds were recorded in Victoria, all of the fanciers who subsequently had the disease in their lofts either bought birds or handled birds . Fanciers who did not handle the birds did not get the disease in their lofts -- this despite the fact that there were infected birds in the room. The chance of virus transfer from one fancier to another is very remote however if fanciers were particularly concerned then washing the clothes worn to the meeting and not wearing the same shoes in the loft should eliminate any risk.
Today I have had extensive conversations with Prof Soren Alexandersen and Dr Travis Beddoe. Their advice was consistent with that received earlier from Agribio. They believe that the cattle Rota vaccine is very unlikely to confer any cross immunity to pigeons. This alternative will not be pursued any more. Although this was the anticipated advice, it is extremely disappointing, all the same, as it means that it will not be possible to immunise the Australian flock before racing and showing this year.
Some good news. Making the vaccine.
The good news, however, is that the consensus is that a vaccine can be made, most likely before the end of the year, and almost certainly no later than Feb/March of next year. So how is the vaccine likely to be made? Essentially the proteins on the Rota virus that are known to stimulate the development of immunity ( i.e. the antigens) need to be produced and given to the pigeons in the form of a vaccine. There are several ways of doing this.
Rota viruses have several key proteins such as the VP8 protein on their surface, which are known to be associated with the development of immunity. In the lab these proteins can be expressed and incorporated into the E.coli system. Essentially a genetically modified E.coli ( that cannot do the pigeons harm ) is produced. This can be injected into a pigeon. Blood is then collected and a virus neutralisation assay done using the serum. That is, tests are done to see if antibodies against Rota virus have been produced. If they have, then a trial batch of vaccine can be made. The quantities of vaccine that are made then need to be rechecked to make sure there has been no loss of potency. If these tests show the vaccine is protective then it can be released for fanciers to use.
There are other options available. Now that we have the genome sequence, synthetic DNA can be made, i.e. we can artificially make the antigens that we need to confer immunity and then put these into a vector E.coli. Sometimes synthetically making the specific segments of DNA that are the antigens we want (rather than getting these from viruses that have been grown) can save several weeks in production time however sometimes these do not stimulate as strong an immune response. Alternatively the virus can be cloned to generate the antigens that we want.
A rough time plan is - 1 month to make the antigenic proteins, 6 months for the virus neutralisation experiments, 1 to 2 months for the trial vaccine manufacture, and 1 month to recheck the bulk vaccine - about 10 months all up.
Prof Alexandersen, Dr Beddoe, Dr Rawlin and I are meeting Friday morning to finalise details. Although it is extremely regrettable that this virus is here, we have a good team working on this problem. From the scientists’ point of view, they have a potentially tremendously rewarding, challenging and very exciting endeavour. This is a new disease and they are charged with the responsibility of developing a way to protect the Australian flock. In doing so, they will not only solve one of the biggest problems facing fanciers and also the sport in recent years but also save the lives of thousands of pigeons.
I have today spoken to Prof Soren Alexandersen , Director, Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases at Deakin University and Dr Travis Beddoe, Senior Lecturer. College of Science, Health and Engineering at La Trobe University. Both are reviewing the calf vaccine Rota and pigeon Rota sequences for potential cross immunity. The sequencing comparisons will be completed by the middle of this week. I did stress to both experts that even if we had to inoculate the birds 3 or 4 times to stimulate immunity then that would be Ok and also that if we could get enough immunity to sufficiently modify the disease so that birds would perhaps become unwell and recover rather than die then this would also be OK, at least as far as offering a short term solution. Discussions were wide ranging and covered the development of a vaccine if it was deemed unlikely for cross immunity to form. The discussions covered the likely time frame and potential cost of this. More detailed chronology and financial plans are being prepared. From these early discussions it seems that if necessary a vaccine could be available for use by Feb /March next year . There is obviously a lot of work to be done but this time frame seems quite achievable. If we are successful in getting an ARC linkage grant then one third of the cost will need to be met by the pigeon fraternity.
The Australian National Pigeon Association ( ANPA ) announced on the weekend that they have cancelled all of their shows for 2017
Prevalence of Rota in Victoria.
I have had NSW fanciers tell me that they have been told, there are over 100 lofts infected in Victoria. Other fanciers have told me the disease is in “plague proportions” in Victoria . Today I emailed AgriBio and asked how many cases they have confirmed. The answer is the disease has been confirmed in 10 Victorian lofts and another 3 are under suspicion. 3 earlier cases thought to have the disease turned out to be PMV. With approximately 1000 racing, exhibition and pet lofts in Victoria the confirmed infection rate is 0.1 % or 1 in 100 lofts. Obviously there are other cases but without some fanciers presenting birds for testing an accurate answer is hard to estimate.
Getting a diagnosis.
I have discussed the importance of getting an accurate diagnosis before. Fanciers who suspect that their birds may have Rota virus are strongly advised to get an accurate diagnosis. In the absence of an accurate diagnosis any conclusions drawn about treatment results, how to manage the birds subsequently and the severity, pattern and distribution of the disease are difficult to evaluate.
Although a fancier’s suspicion may be aroused by the symptoms displayed by his birds, there are other conditions that cause birds to develop diarrhoea, vomit and die. In one situation, a fancier’s birds started to vomit. A fancier that he had visited several days earlier also had vomiting birds. He started to treat his birds with some Sulpha AVS and supplements. No birds died and the birds regained their health. His conclusion was that the treatment had worked remarkably well and that his birds must be very robust because they had been able to fight off the infection. Although the antibiotics and supplements may have helped his birds, it is unlikely that the birds had Rota. Conversely, another fancier had more than 45% of his birds die. He concluded that it must have been a severe case of Rota. Although Rota might have been involved, it is likely that some other health problem was also going on. In the cases that have been presented as suspect Rota virus cases and have been investigated, some had PMV, some had Circo and one bird had a chlamydia/coccidia infection. All of the common diseases that make pigeons sick around this time are still present. I feel that at the moment many of these cases are simply being labelled as “another case of Rota “. The result can be that Rota may appear more common than it really is. Fanciers are not doing themselves, their neighbours or their federation any favours by not getting a diagnosis.
Accurate diagnosis involves the submission of either a sick live bird or a freshly dead bird (ideally dead for less than 4 hours) to a vet and then subsequent histopathological examination of tissues by an experienced pathologist and sometimes further tests. The condition cannot be diagnosed over the phone. The availability of supported testing in Victoria, NSW and possibly other states by the DPI is a great initiative and means that there is no real reason for fanciers not to get an accurate diagnosis. It also shows the importance that the states place on getting the correct diagnosis.
Understanding the diagnostic process
How was Rota virus diagnosed?
Often one of the first steps in diagnosis is histopathology. This is where tissues from a freshly dead bird are collected, stained and examined under the microscope. Histopathology usually gives a good general indication of the nature of the problem. It often identifies whether the problem is bacterial, viral, a toxin or indeed something else. With some viruses, this early step will allow diagnosis. For example, Circovirus has such a characteristic appearance that a practiced pathologist quite literally can’t miss it. The next step can be electron microscopy (EM). There are several types of EM but essentially EM produces a super-magnified image. These bigger, clearer images allow you to see something like a virus in much more detail. Sometimes the shape, size or surface of a virus that is now visible will enable a pathologist to suggest that a virus looks like a particular type of virus. The next step is virus culture. Here, the virus is grown. The way a virus grows and reacts further helps with identification. Virus culture also enables production of the virus for further testing. Usually the final step is sequencing. Here the sequence of genes on the viral genome is identified. The identification of recognised sequences and patterns enables accurate identification.
With this disease investigation, histopathology and some other tests identified the problem as a virus. EM allowed a provisional diagnosis of a Reo virus. Virus culture and sequencing identified the type of Reo virus as a Rota virus. Completion of the sequencing identified the virus as a type A Rota subtype G18. An easy way of understanding the diagnostic process is to imagine that you are trying to identify something moving along a road. The initial test might tell you that the object is a car. Further testing tells you that it is a Holden, further testing tells you it is a Torana, further testing tells you it is a 1970 model, and the final test tells you that it is blue. In this way, we know that the agent causing the current disease outbreak is a virus of the Reo family and the type of Reo is a Rota virus that belongs to type A and subgroup G18.
This type of diagnostic work is well beyond any private practitioner. Some fanciers might think that I have made this diagnosis. This is not the case. I am a clinician. What clinicians know is what samples are required for diagnosis and how to collect them , where and how to send the samples for testing, what tests to request and how to interpret the results. EM, virus vulture and certainly genetic sequencing can only be done by large research and diagnostic facilities. My role has been to guide and co-ordinate the diagnostic process with ways of immunising the birds, treatment options, and tests to more fully understand how this virus behaves. I have simply let the experts do their jobs. With the diagnostic phase now starting to end, time and effort are now being redirected to developing and manufacturing an effective vaccine so that the trouble being caused by this disease can come to an end.
Transmission electron microscope image of virus particles in a preparation from the liver of an affected pigeon. (photo by DAFWA)
The pigeon Rota virus sequence and vaccine cattle Rota sequences have been sent to 2 virologists for comparison and assessment for any potential cross immunity today. These results should be available early next week. We will be charged consultation fees for this work. This is the first money from our Rota “war chest “ that has been spent. Results will be made available as soon as I have them.
I have included below 13 images. The images were taken yesterday and today in a loft infected with Rota virus that has had 66 birds die in the last 3 days. The fancier said that I could state whose loft it was saying “ I have no secrets “. I wish more fanciers were as open and honest. It would make the disease much easier to track and control. I have however decided not to put his name on line but if fanciers feel they need to know they can contact me privately.
A lesson learnt…..maybe.
Last Monday it was 6 weeks since the first Rota case was presented to a vet in Victoria. It seems longer because so much has happened and so much has been achieved. I asked Grant Rawlin at AgriBio how it was that so much information and in particular an accurate diagnosis had been made in such a short time. He replied “ Luck certainly plays a big part .... then you chase that lucky break hard”. This is a very modest answer. Victorian fanciers specifically and Australian fanciers generally need to be aware and grateful for the fantastic job that AgriBio, AAHL, the University of Melbourne and the office of Victoria’s CVO have done. They have been co-ordinated, pro-active and have kept the pigeon community informed and up to date.
I am still however perplexed by the situation that occurred in WA. I know that disease outbreaks can have different circumstances but in theory WA fanciers could have found themselves in the situation that Victoria now finds itself 6 weeks after the outbreak there. As the outbreak occurred there in mid -May they could have been in our situation by the end of June 2016. WA fanciers could have known then, everything that we know now.
In any disease outbreak the two most important things initially are to contain the spread of disease and to get an accurate diagnosis. Frustratingly in WA neither occurred. A rushed misdiagnosis was made and promoted. Accurate diagnosis is critical. Every virus belongs to a particular group and the characteristics of that group are known. Accurately identifying the virus therefore allows predictions to be made as to how a virus is likely to behave. To base control decisions based on the wrong virus is just absurd. In WA further decisions were then made based on this misdiagnosis which were in turn doomed to be incorrect. Frustratingly despite this there was also inadequate biosecurity . There was a failure to identify the disease as a new one and adopt measures to limit the spread of disease both within WA and Australia. Racing resumed when the birds were still infectious. New fanciers birds were transported that duly caught the disease. Australian pigeon fanciers remained unaware of the absolutely critical need not to move pigeons in or out of WA. The borders remained open. Fanciers were advised that there was “no potential for future protection from vaccination”.
So, what happened.
1,First cases mid-May, misdiagnosis
2,Failure to identify problem, importance of limiting the spread of disease not realised, racing resumed, borders remained open, fanciers unaware of critical need to limit bird movement.
3,Disease spread to the rest of the country
4,Onset of vaccine development delayed
5 Unlikely normal showing or racing will occur in SA, Vic and NSW in 2017
6, Death of many more birds
What could have happened
!, First cases mid –May, diagnosis progresses as in Victoria, information available now to Victorian fanciers available to WA fanciers by the end of June
2,WA authorities notified of a new disease, border closed, fanciers aware of risk to eastern seaboard. No birds in or out of WA
3,Vaccine production commences with an anticipated 12 to 18 month time to complete and make vaccine available
4, At least a chance for racing and showing to occur in eastern states in 2017
Had the diagnostic work followed the same path in WA as it has in Victoria then it is much more likely that the virus could still be contained in WA, we would be 7 months, or over half way towards developing a vaccine and would have a good chance of vaccinating the birds before June enabling normal racing and showing to occur
If nothing else, I think the outbreak shows a need for a co-ordinated national body. It is perhaps not reasonable to expect a single federation or club anywhere in the country to have to deal with a potentially national issue such as this. I would like to think that we have dealt much better with this outbreak than we did with the PMV outbreak in 2012/2013 but we still have many improvements to make. There has been an incredible amount of misinformation. In future I feel that all information should be vetted by either the ANRPB or the ANPA and fanciers should refer to either of these bodies for their information.
We are only about half way through the current journey. The diagnostic phase is now completed. The stage where we develop a way of protecting the birds is just beginning. We can put the hurdles we encountered in the diagnostic phase behind us but let’s not place any more in our way in the future. There will be a lot of issues arising about the vaccine development, the virus in other birds, testing in chickens, carrier states, reinfection times, limit of bird movement into some parts of the country, funding etc etc. Fanciers should develop a confidence in their national bodies and look to them as a source of accurate information
Great opportunities to control the disease wasted.
Australia is a large country with vast distances separating various locations. It should be, and is, comparatively easy to contain disease to particular areas. This method has worked well with all other disease outbreaks in recent years including outbreaks of Avian Influenza in chickens and various cattle and sheep diseases. Individuals who choose to ignore restrictions on animal movement are subject to criminal prosecution.
In a “normal” disease outbreak the usual thing is to do everything possible to contain the spread of disease. Australia with Rota had several great opportunities to do this. Sadly these may have been squandered. The first was when the virus first appeared in WA. Through a series of events now well known to most fanciers, and outlined above, this opportunity was lost. The second was when the virus was first identified in the eastern seaboard. When this happened a more conventional approach to disease control was initiated – containment of spread and initiation of control measures. This happened in days. Sadly this process was hijacked. Independent advice was given by people not involved in the control or diagnostic process and some fanciers followed this advice. The advice incredibly was to disseminate the disease. Despite the fact that Victoria diagnosed the problem very quickly this advice was given even before the condition was diagnosed. Ironically the advice was offered as a solution to the problem.
Unfortunately with such an infectious virus it does not take much for it to reach a ‘tipping point’ where more and more lofts start to become infected. With people failing to observe normal biosecurity measures eventually fanciers who are in remote locations from the original outbreak cannot exercise their birds without a significant risk of being exposed to the virus .In this way a few misguided individuals, some of which do not live in the state have raised the strong possibility that we could all lose a significant number of our birds and normal showing and racing will not occur. In my opinion these people have a lot to answer for.
Following the events of the last week in Sydney I see the whole thing happening yet again. There are emails from the NSW DPI and elected federation officials strongly advising viral containment and yet I had fanciers calling me yesterday telling me that they are being advised to spread the virus.
And so are we going to race this year?
If the disease had been contained to WA then everyone in the east could race. If the disease had been contained to the few individual lofts that were initially infected in the east then everyone except these few individuals could race. With poor biosecurity and misinformation, the absolute worst of which being that the best thing to do was spread the virus, it now means that many /most fanciers will not be able or willing to race. About 10 % of Melbourne metropolitan lofts are now infected making it very difficult for fanciers to safely exercise their birds. Even if they do not catch the virus during training and tossing it only takes one of their bird to mix in a race unit with a bird from a loft that has had the disease in the carrier time of over 5 months and they will catch it. It therefore comes down to fanciers having to make a choice, whether they are prepared to run the significant risk of catching the disease, lose 15 to 40 % of their birds and race or simply have a year out and wait for the vaccine. The sad thing for me is that all of this could have been avoided. A few misguided individuals thought they knew better than the government experts and elected federation officials and did not follow recommendations. The truly incredible thing is that they could not even wait the short period of time, just 6 weeks, that it has taken to diagnose the condition and propose a method of control, to in effect wreck this year for everyone
Sadly as the impact of the disease unfolds over the next year, the decision whether or not to race may be one of the simpler ones. With advancing high mortality disease, federation and national officials are likely to have to mitigate potential pigeon welfare issues. Also because of the long carrier state the vast majority of any raced birds would be infectious. This will raise issues regarding the transmission of the disease to the birds of other fanciers who show or simply keep their birds as pets, the transmission to other species of bird and of course the big question is, what does the virus do to chickens . If the virus does affect chickens there may be immediate shut down of all movement of potentially infectious pigeons anywhere. Also one has to wonder where any races will be from. Birds cannot be released into areas where the disease is not already present. Fanciers in these areas should be given the opportunity to keep their birds free of infection until they can protect them from vaccination next year.
Dr Amanda Lee of the NSW DPI has advised that this state is now offering supported diagnostic work for fanciers. This is a great initiative. One good thing that is coming out of this outbreak is the incredible support that the pigeon community is getting from the various government bodies. Fanciers who think that their birds have Rota virus should contact their veterinarian. The veterinarian will prepare the appropriate samples for submission to the DPI. Fanciers should expect to pay the vet for his services but all direct diagnostic costs will covered by the government. Dr Lee’s advice is below. Fanciers are strongly advised to take advantage of this generous offer.
I have received notification of an outbreak of the emerging rotavirus pigeon disease in the Sydney area.
DPI is keen to support the profession in investigation of suspect NSW cases of the emerging rotavirus pigeon disease. DPI will fund testing for notifiable disease exclusion (avian influenza and PPMV1) and rotavirus investigation (but not other routine differential diagnostics) for samples submitted by a registered veterinarian with an appropriate clinical history that gives suspicion that it could be a rotavirus event, or where there is a direct link to confirmed cases in other states.
Biosecurity will be crucial in the management of this emerging rotavirus pigeon disease and to mitigate potential pigeon welfare issues and transmission between pigeons and other avian species.
Some answers to some common questions
Are recovered Rota Birds immune for life?
The quick answer is almost certainly not. However no one knows for sure. What I can say is that it would be a pretty unusual virus if a single short term illness of just 5 to 7 days, as is the case with Rota, was sufficient stimulation to the immune system to provide a life time of immunity. With most viruses after a period of time a percentage of birds become vulnerable to reinfection and as time goes by this percentage steadily increases. PPMV for example is fairly typical. When we did the trials in 2012/2013 we found that 10% of birds could catch the disease again after 12 months and the number went up from there. This is why PPMV immunity needs boostering with annual vaccinations . Many viral diseases, not only PPMV, need either annual boostering or several vaccinations given over a period of time for protective immunity to form. For the same reason our pet dogs and cats have annual boosters. It would be unusual if Rota was significantly different. This is a new disease and although no one knows the true answer a trial similar to that for PPMV will give the answer. These trials are already being discussed in Melbourne
The idea that some fanciers have proposed of infecting their loft, losing perhaps 20% of their birds including stock birds so that they can race one year makes no sense to me. At least by next year we should have a vaccine and normal racing can resume
My loft does not have the disease but I have had a missing youngster return that I would like to keep. What should I do ?
The incubation time ( ie the time from catching the virus until the bird gets sick ) is not known for Rota virus but evidence suggests that it is 5 to 7 days. I am not aware of any cases where it has been longer than 10 days. Fanciers should isolate the returned bird for at least 10 days and adopt strict quarantine. This means that no material from the bird, particularly droppings, should leave the quarantine area. The bird should not be handled or if this is necessary the hands should be disinfected before going to the loft. The bird should not come in contact with clothing. If the bird is still well after 10 days, although we cannot say for sure, it is probably safe to return the bird to the loft.
My birds have caught the disease. What can I give them ?
There is no direct treatment for Rota virus. The virus simply has to run its course. There is evidence however that commencing treatment with an antibiotic that is effective against the common bowel pathogens such as E. coli can reduce the mortality rate. We have identified some E. coli infections in some birds infected with Rota virus . The antibiotics in treating the E. coli are likely to be helping some birds fight the virus. All other treatment is supportive. That means that the basics of good pigeon care need to apply. The birds need to be kept clean , fed a nutritious diet etc. Basically just all the usual things a good fancier would do. I notice already that some are trying to capitalise on this disease and supply vitamins etc as boosters. It is way too early to say if any of these supplements are of any advantage but I would think that in a loft that is already being well managed, probably they are not.
I have received the sequence data for the calf Rota vaccines and this has been forwarded to AgriBio for comparison. An initial review however is not promising. The calf Rota viruses belong to group 6 and group 10 while the pigeon Rota is a group 18. There is some overlap but not a lot. Blood is being collected from some recovered Rota birds and this will used to test for cross reactions.
The last few weeks has been a rocky journey. I review the results as they become available logically through the eyes of a veterinarian but like most I have a lovely batch of babies that I would dearly like to race. Looking at and caring for them daily and then being confronted with results that are not showing a way of protecting them can be quite agitating. All the time ,of course, I run the risk of exposure and having a significant number of my birds die. It is indeed a challenging time for all . Fanciers can be assured that everything is being done to develop a way of protecting the birds
The last few days have been a time of phone calls, emails and meetings with AgriBio staff, interstate DPI reps, vaccine manufacturers and drug companies. On Friday AgriBio completed the sequencing of the virus responsible for the current disease outbreak in pigeons. The virus is a member of the Reo family of viruses ( the Reoviridae ) but is actually a Group A Rota virus. The Reo family of virus is divided into about 30 genera ( a type of group ). The Rota viruses are one of these groups. The Reo virus that affects chickens belongs to another group called the Orthoreo viruses. Even though both types are in the same family, because they are in different groups it is very unlikely that there will be any cross immunity between the two. (Nevertheless this will be thoroughly investigated.)
Consequently a chicken Reo vaccine is unlikely to be effective in protecting pigeons against a Rota virus disease. It was hoped that the chicken and pigeon Reo types would be more similar and that a chicken vaccine could be used to immunise pigeons. Frustratingly it now looks as if this is not the case. If it was the case however, then because these vaccines are not available in Australia appropriate import permits would need to be obtained from the relevant government bodies. As discussed earlier this is involved and would take several months.
The big advantage with the problem being diagnosed as a Rota virus is that there are Rota virus vaccines already available in Australia. They are made for use in calves. It may be that vaccinating pigeons with a calf Rota vaccine will protect them. To many pigeon fanciers this is going to seem really bizarre. I can remember that some fanciers were reluctant to use a “chook “ vaccine to protect their pigeons against PMV. Which species the virus actually causes disease in however is pretty irrelevant. Of much more importance is the genetic overlap between two viruses. The more antigens that are shared between viruses then the more likely cross immunity is to develop between the viruses even if those viruses naturally infect different species. It may surprise many fanciers to learn that horses are immunised against Hendra virus with a modified canary pox virus! So I don’t know which sounds more unusual, vaccinating horses with a canary vaccine or pigeons with a calf vaccine. Some will remember that in an earlier post I mentioned that one Reo virus that infects pigeons is closely related to a Reo virus that infects sea lions. It is important not to become distracted by which species the virus naturally infects but rather consider how similar the viruses actually are. Some species of Rota virus that infect cattle are 96% the same as Rota viruses that infect pigeons.
Having said all that though, the Rota viruses that infect cattle belong to the subgroup H while this Rota is a G and because of this some of the experts that I have spoken to have suggested that even though cross immunity is a possibility it is not a strong one. I have asked two large pharmaceutical companies which supply calf Rota vaccine in Australia to forward the sequences to me. AgriBio will compare these and make an assessment on potential cross immunity.
And so at least for the short term the pathway to immunising the Australian pigeon flock has been redirected . We are now moving away from evaluating chicken Reo based vaccines to evaluating cattle Rota vaccines for potential cross immunity. Any suggestion for virus use would be based on the degree of antigen overlap and the potential for immunity to develop and as such would only be a recommendation. A trial would need to be conducted to confirm this.
What the pigeon community in Australia must realise however, is that if it does turn out that there will be no cross immunity from a calf Rota vaccine that we will then have exhausted our options of using an available vaccine . There are no chicken, turkey or pigeon Rota virus vaccines available anywhere in the world. To immunise our birds we would need to make our own vaccine.
Making a vaccine.
To this end, I have made some tentative enquiries with seven vaccine manufacturing companies. The big question that every fancier wants answered is how long this will take. The answer is probably about 12 months but it could be as long as 18 months. It is unlikely to be longer than this.
The vaccine development would essentially occur in two stages:
Here the specifications of the vaccine and the way to make it would be developed. A potential way that a vaccine could be made would be, for example, to genetically modify an E coli and insert the Rota antigens that are required. Rota’s are hard to grow while E coli’s grow readily. In this way, larger amounts of antigens could be generated for vaccine manufacture. This stage would cost probably in the range of $100,000 – 200,000. This is a lot, however two of the labs that I have spoken to can apply for Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage grants. This is a federally funded research grant that is a source of funds for research in which the industry (in this case, the pigeon sport) that benefits contributes to it. In this way, a research organisation links with an industry partner. These have to be applied for and it is competitive. Usually, the government funding will match the industry funding at a ratio of 2 to 1.
Information is supplied to the manufacturer, who will make the vaccine. This typically would not involve the pigeon community with any cost. The cost of the vaccine would be set by the manufacturer to offset the cost of vaccine manufacture and incorporate a profit.
With the classic enteric rota viruses, the mothers are vaccinated to protect their offspring. Because this virus affects the liver, it is likely to have what is called a viremic stage (where the virus is in the blood). This means that an autogenous vaccine should protect the youngsters. Laboratory tests will indicate when the best time to vaccinate will be.
Are we going to race?
Obviously, I am not the one to make this decision, but, at the moment unless a calf Rota vaccine is deemed to be likely to confer cross-immunity, it will not be possible to immunise the birds before the normal start of racing. It will be up to each individual organisation to make its own decision. The Australian National Racing Pigeon Board may choose to issue advice but the final decision will rest with each organisation. If the virus behaves the same way that it did in Western Australia, and there is no reason to suggest that it will behave any differently, then it will be readily spread through race units and kill on average 15-40% of birds in previously uninfected lofts. If this occurred in a widespread way on the eastern seaboard, we would be looking at the loss of between 250,000-400,000 pigeons.
Get a diagnosis
Over the last few days, there have been many phone calls either from fanciers saying they have the disease or from other fanciers saying they know someone with the disease. Without a diagnosis, all that can be said is that fanciers have birds with symptoms that are suggestive of the problem. To not get an accurate diagnosis is, in my opinion, to put it simply, just crazy. Fanciers are strongly urged to take advantage of the supported diagnosis currently offered by Agribio and discussed in an earlier update. Getting a diagnosis has many advantages for the fancier, the most obvious one being that he gets an accurate diagnosis. He may have something else that may be treatable. Getting a diagnosis also has advantages for the pigeon fraternity. If cases are not presented, how can the distribution and pattern of disease ever be evaluated.
I was advised by Dr Amanda Lee of NSW DPI that the first case of Rota in the Sydney metropolitan area was confirmed yesterday. Other lofts are under suspicion.
1, This is a new Rota virus to science and this is early days in our understanding of it. It has not been recorded anywhere else in the world. It is made up of several parts. There are similarities to a fox rotavirus but it has also similarities to a rotavirus from the spotted dove ( Streptopelia sp ) that is a common inhabitant of Australian gardens. There are also some duck components. The current thought is that it evolved here in Australia after a pre- existent Rota virus changed slightly. This change altered the type of disease the virus could cause and the species it could infect.
2,Rota viruses typically cause an enteritis ( inflammation of the bowel ) and low mortality rates. This virus primarily causes a hepatitis ( inflammation of the liver ) and has a high mortality rate. We are therefore dealing with something that is very novel, although a Rota virus in mice causes a similar disease.
3, Rota viruses are very tough in the environment. It is likely that this virus would survive for at least several months in a contaminated environment such as a loft. It is unlikely though that it would survive longer than 6 months.
The DAFWA report on the pigeon mortalities in WA in 2016 has now been released. Please see below
Investigation of pigeon mortalities in Western Australia
Update for pigeon owners
13 January 2017
The Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia (DAFWA) has concluded their investigation into the cause of mortalities in racing pigeons during May and June 2016 in the Perth metropolitan area.
The outbreak, in May and June 2016 involved several lofts with infected birds showing diarrhoea, regurgitation and death. Mortalities were variable, but were up to 20% in some lofts. Birds were submitted to DAFWA Diagnostic Laboratory Services - Animal pathology unit, which carried out full post-mortem examination and sampling. Laboratory testing was also performed at other laboratories including the CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratories (AAHL) and Charles Sturt University.
All birds tested negative for the reportable diseases avian influenza, pigeon paramyxovirus type 1 and Newcastle disease. Initial laboratory tests at DAFWA and an epidemiological assessment suggested that the cause of mortality was due to a viral hepatitis, possibly an adenovirus, however all samples were negative for adenovirus on testing at Charles Sturt University.
Subsequent electron microscopy was performed at DAFWA, which showed virus particles in affected birds consistent with a reovirus. Reovirus was considered a strong possibility as a cause of the pigeon mortalities however they are widely distributed in healthy bird populations and in most cases do not cause clinical disease.
Throughout the remainder of 2016 DAFWA applied considerable resources to undertake further intensive molecular and virological investigation using a wide array of available technology. Despite this, no further evidence supporting reovirus as the cause of the outbreak was obtained.
In summary, while a reovirus is believed to be the cause of the outbreak, this has not been definitively confirmed. The pigeon industry is advised that irrespective of which virus caused the outbreak, biosecurity measures are essential to help protect their birds from disease. Biosecurity advice is available on the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources website.
Any unusual illness or mortalities should be reported immediately to your private veterinarian, the Emergency Animal Disease hotline on 1800 675 888, or to Dr Emily Glass, DAFWA, on +61 (0)8 9368 3360 or Emily.Glass@agric.wa.gov.au.
Important disclaimer The Chief Executive Officer of the Department of Agriculture and Food and the State of Western Australia accept no liability whatsoever by reason of negligence or otherwise arising from the use or release of this information or any part of it.
AgriBio and Intervet meetings
Yesterday was a day of meetings. In the afternoon I met with Dr Grant Rawlin and Dr Christina McCowan at Agribio. Essentially the meeting was to bring me up to speed with all the various diagnostic endeavours that are proceeding at AgriBio and AAHL regarding Reovirus. There are plans to investigate whether the virus can be carried by other species of bird that may in turn pass the virus to pigeons. The virus cultures have generated good amounts of virus (not an easy thing) for further testing, such as electron microscopy and gene sequencing. This work is not only being done by AgriBio but is being repeated by AAHL and the University of Melbourne to back up the first set of results. AgriBio staff are well aware of the need for urgency in this diagnostic work and are proceeding as quickly as possible. The sequencing will take a bit longer with results now expected next week. They will be forwarded to me as soon as they are available.
Later in the day, I had a phone hook up with Dr Tom Grimes of Intervet. In order to spend the short period waiting for the Reo sequencing results productively, we are preparing to begin the vaccine sequence comparison as soon as the results are available. We are informing the experts at Intervet now so that they are expecting the sequencing results and are able to make their recommendations on likely cross-immunity as quickly as possible. On Friday I am having a combined hook up with Dr Tom Grimes and Robin Anderson, both of Intervet. Robin is Poultry National Sales Manager. I have been advised that gene sequencing comparisons usually take 2 to 3 days. If it appears that cross-immunity is likely from one of the overseas vaccines, it will then be a matter of getting our import approval submissions to the APVMA and Biosecurity Risk Assessment as quickly as possible. I have already spoken at length to both of these departments and will fly to Canberra once the submissions have been made in an effort to expedite their processing.
As explained in previous posts, if it appears that the available overseas vaccines are unlikely to offer any cross-immunity, then a vaccine will need to be made here. I have made enquiries with 5 companies that may be able to do this work for us. For now though, it is a matter of waiting for the sequencing results and completing the comparisons with the vaccines as promptly as is practicable.
Viruses all the same
To date, all completed testing done at AgriBio and AAHL in Victoria has confirmed that the disease that affected pigeons in WA in May/June and in the eastern states since December is the same.
The Department of Agriculture and Food Western Australia ( DAFWA ) has advised that their report on the pigeon disease outbreak that occurred in Western Australia in May has passed to the next regulatory level for approval prior to release! They are unable to give a time when the report will be available. However with Victoria essentially having diagnosed the cause of the disease and with all results indicating that the disease in WA, NSW, SA and Victoria is the same, this report has probably become irrelevant to the diagnostic and disease management processes. Some fanciers will be surprised to learn that this report is still not available, with some suggesting that the delay in diagnosis and failure to close the WA border contributed to the spread of the disease to the rest of the country. The cause for the delay is unclear.
Reo Virus overseas and its implications for Australia
I have had some correspondence from two of my European veterinary colleagues, Dr Pascal Lanneau from Belgium and Dr Dennis Rubbenstroth from Germany. They have advised that they have information on Reovirus infection in 2 unrelated pigeon flocks suffering from disease.
In the first case
- Reoviruses from pigeons were isolated mainly from juvenile birds suffering from diarrhea (McFerran, 1976).
- Serological tests suggested a wide distribution in racing pigeon flocks in Germany (Heffels, 1981).
- The authors sequenced an isolate from a racing pigeon flock with mortality of juvenile birds.
- The virus was isolated in cell culture and sequenced.
- There is apparently only minimal cross-reactivity with chicken reoviruses.
- The sequence belonged to an independent clade (taxonomic group). The next relative originated from a sea lion (70% amino acid identity). (I have no information which segment(s) was/were tested.)
In this case it was unknown, whether Reoviruses in pigeons were species-specific or the result of spill-over infection from other species (e.g. poultry).
In the second case
a Reovirus was suspected in a squab with diarrhea, which originated from a flock with losses of juvenile birds. A virus was isolated in cell culture and provisionally identified as Reovirus by electron microscopy.
This is obviously a very different pattern of disease from what we are seeing in Australia. Dr Rubbenstroth feels (like me) that the virus we are currently dealing with has probably originated in Australia after a genetic shift in a Reo virus already present altered that virus’s ability to cause disease. This raises further questions for Australian fanciers. If this virus has originated here, it has the potential, in theory , to infect the world’s pigeons. There may be some hesitation by some overseas countries to accept for import pigeons coming from Australia, including those being entered in ‘one loft’ races. I have been advised that the Victorian authorities have an obligation to advise the Australian national authorities, who in turn have an international obligation to notify other countries of a potential animal health threat.
AgriBio assisting fanciers to get an accurate diagnosis.
AgriBio has advised that they are once again prepared to back up Victorian veterinarians by covering the cost of diagnostic work on suspect Reo birds. Fanciers who suspect that their birds may be infected are strongly advised to contact their veterinarian and seek an accurate diagnosis. Not every bird that becomes unwell in Victoria over the next few months will have Reo virus and fanciers should not assume that their birds have the disease based simply on the symptoms that they are showing. Fanciers should take an unwell live bird to their veterinarian, who will be able to collect the samples necessary for diagnosis and forward these to AgriBio. There will be charges from your local veterinarian but all costs directly associated with diagnostic testing will be covered by AgriBio. This is a generous offer and is an example of a government body working directly with fanciers to help solve a problem. Fanciers should avail themselves of this service.
Progress. Some technical stuff
I have had contact with Dr Christina McCowan at Agribio today. Christina is guiding the gene sequencing process. She advises that the sequencing is taking a bit longer than envisaged and will not be completed until early next week. This is still very quick. We were hoping that the results would be available this week but there are constraints on this process. She has also advised that the embryos from virus isolation are showing positive changes that are consistent with viral, possibly Reo viral disease. She will look at them histologically and Agribio will examine the fluids in various ways, mainly molecular. She is also expecting more electron microscopy (EM) from AAHL within the next week.
Agribio is sending some tissues to Prof Amir Noormohammadi at the University of Melbourne so that he can run the chicken Reo PCR that his department has developed on Victorian samples. The positive results reported earlier were done on WA pigeon samples
The next week is a pivotal one for the Australian pigeon community. The sequencing results and then their comparison with the available vaccines will determine whether we will be applying to import a vaccine or need to make one in Victoria. The 2 authorities who need to OK the import of a vaccine are the APVMA and Biosecurity Risk assessment. I have spoken to both the APVMA and Biosecurity. The APVMA indicated that, with a critical national need (as here), they could issue an import permit in 1-3 months. Biosecurity will take longer; they estimate 3-6 months to issue their permits. If the sequencing indicates likely cross immunity and the permit application process proceeds smoothly, then this would mean the entire country can race and show this year even if this means for some organisations starting their season a bit later or running a compressed or shorter season. To make a vaccine would take 18 months so this means potentially no competition. I have been advised that it is important that the decision makers are made aware of a critical national need. To this end, I will endeavour to set up meetings with Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer in Canberra (as we did with the PMV) outbreak and also the Minister, Mr Barnaby Joyce.
I have contacted both Zoetis and Intervet and arranged to forward the sequencing results as soon as they are available to their experts so they can evaluate the potential for cross immunity from their chicken vaccines to pigeons.
As many fanciers are aware, there are reports from the USA about a mystery disease killing large numbers of pigeons there. Some Australian fanciers have been concerned that it may be the same disease as in Australia. I have contacted a number of my US veterinary colleagues and have been advised that a number of these cases have been diagnosed as PMV. Other cases are still being investigated. I will make veterinary results available as I receive them
Since Monday eleven new lofts have either been confirmed or are under strong suspicion of having the disease. One is in Dandenong. The rest are all in Melbourne’s north west. Of these, three are non- racing lofts
Correct PMV dose
There has been a suggestion that the dose for PMV vaccine is too high and that the vaccine in its adjuvant (i.e. its carrier or base) predisposes the birds to illness and infertility. A dose of 0.25 ml has been suggested. The recommended dose of both Poulvac and Neucovac killed La Sota vaccines in Australia is 0.5 ml twice, 4 weeks apart. The dose of 0.5 ml was proposed by the Consultative Committee for Emergency Animal Disease (CCEAD). It was also the dose used during the 18-month vaccine trial that was conducted in 2013. One of the principal aims of the 18-month PMV vaccine trial that was conducted in 2013 was to ensure that the suggested vaccine protocol did the pigeons no harm. No harm could be demonstrated. The test results passed the rigorous standards of the APVMA enabling Pfizer/Zoetis to register the vaccine for use in pigeons. The trial was also published in the prestigious peer-reviewed Australian Veterinary Journal. These ultimate authorities were happy with the conclusions that the suggested protocol was not harmful to pigeons and conferred strong immunity. The killed La Sota-based vaccine used in Australia is used in many counties around the world including the UK and USA. It has been suggested that the dose of 0.5 ml is not the manufacturer’s recommendation. I emailed today Mr Phil Lehrbach who is in charge of Zoetis’ (the vaccine’s manufacturer) product distribution for Australasia and SE Asia. He advised that the dose is 0.5 ml. There are other brands of La Sota vaccine available in the world where the recommendation is that a different volume be injected. Unlike some other drugs, the vaccine volume is not based on weight but the level of activity of the vaccine. This means that a stronger vaccine may require a lower injection volume. People and particularly media who advise a different, particularly lower dose rate must be prepared to accept responsibility for pigeons catching PMV because fanciers followed their advice and gave a different dose that failed to develop protective immunity in their birds. They should also be prepared to back up such opinions with published peer-reviewed scientific data (as with the recommended dose) rather than just someone’s theory. Fanciers should give PMV vaccine at a dose of 0.5 ml twice, 4 weeks apart, and should be confident that the vaccine is not harming their birds.
I spoke to Dr Christina McCowan at AgriBio today. She believes they are still on track to have the gene sequencing completed by the end of next week. This is great work. As explained earlier this will give a good indication as to whether the Reo chicken vaccines are likely to also be protective for pigeons. The sequencing work will also give an indication whether the pigeon Reo virus is likely to, in fact, infect chickens. It may also allude to the origins of the virus.
Professor Amir Noormohammadi at the University of Melbourne has produced a chicken Reo virus PCR test. PCR tests are very specific and check for matching sequences of DNA in a sample. The chicken Reo PCR test was today run on 4 pigeon livers from confirmed Reo cases.. All 4 tests were positive. The chicken Reo PCR registered a positive result even though only pigeon Reo was present. This may indicate that there are significant similarities between the 2 viruses. This test will also be useful in diagnosing Reo virus in suspect pigeons. Amir’s gene sequencing is also proceeding well. Fanciers should be aware that there are many very capable vets and pathologists giving their skills and time to give us the answers on Reo virus.
Previous veterinary work has indicated that only a full genotyping of the Sigma C gene on the Reo genome will give an indication of antigenic relatedness.
Because it is a significant indicator of likely cross immunity both AgriBio and the University of Melbourne are focusing on this particularly important sequence area
Today we have had cases confirmed through our clinic at Eltham, Lysterfield and Whittlesea. Another loft is under suspicion in the Dandenong ranges
Drug Company and regulatory body meetings
I have spoken today to vaccine supply companies and also the relevant government bodies involved with biosecurity risk assessment and the issuing of vaccine import permits. The time frames that they have suggested make racing a possibility this year (but only just ). Over the next 10 days the pigeon Reo sequencing results should be completed. The experts in this area will then assess and compare these results with the available Reo chicken vaccines to see if there is likely to be any cross immunity. If this is the case then permit applications will be prepared. This is a big job and there is a cost involved that the pigeon fraternity will need to cover. The permit applications will then be submitted. If successful, a vaccine will then be able to be imported. I feel that fanciers should continue (at least for the time being) to manage their lofts as if racing was going to proceed. There are however a number of significant hurdles to cross. The most significant of these is that there may be little or no cross immunity. In this case, a vaccine will need to be made here and , after speaking to several vaccine manufacturing companies, this may take up to 18 months. I must say that the biosecurity and APVMA (Australian Pesticide and Veterinary Medicine) representatives as well as the pharmaceutical people that I have spoken to today have all been most informative and helpful. Australian fanciers can be assured that these people are doing what they can to assist us
Other issues today
The University of Melbourne is working on a Reo virus PCR diagnostic test. This test checks for Reo DNA in samples such as droppings. This will make it quicker, easier and cheaper to diagnose suspect Reo birds.
There has been reference on the internet to a toxic bacteria bowel /liver syndrome. DAFWA ( Dept of Agriculture and Food WA ) has advised that histopathology done on birds that had died of the disease did not show erosive inflammation of the bowel wall or virus present there. Also the bacteria in the bowel, when cultured, were all identified as just normal bacteria. The proposed condition is not supported by the results.
I have had contact with avian vets in South Africa, USA and western Europe . All have advised that strains of Reo virus occur in pigeons there but that these are regarded as an incidental finding and are not thought to be associated with disease. To date, the strain of Reo virus causing disease in Australia seems to be an exclusively Australian problem.
Apparently, clusters of, as yet unconfirmed, cases have occurred in lofts around Kyabram and Port Augusta. In these lofts, the birds have been confined. This raises the possibility that ,as with PMV, Reo can be carried asymptomatically by non-target bird species, i.e. that other species of bird can carry and transmit this strain of Reo virus to pigeons without becoming unwell themselves.
It is still not known whether this strain of Reo virus is capable of infecting chickens
I have had some fanciers contact me today and say that they have read on the internet that some people are recommending that infected birds be spread around so that more lofts can become infected. The idea, apparently, is that even though a proportion of birds in the loft would die, the others could then be raced! This is something that I most definitely do not recommend. If the same percentage of birds were lost on the eastern seaboard as in WA, this approach would lead to the deaths of between 15% and 40 % of the estimated one million pigeons, i.e. 150,000 to 400,000 birds in the eastern states. Apart from this disturbing figure, other thoughts that cross my mind include:
1. People were outraged when it was revealed that young, healthy but slow greyhounds were euthanized. What would be the public’s response if it was revealed that a readily infectious, high mortality virus was deliberately introduced into a loft of healthy pigeons, knowing that for every 100 birds about 25 would die simply so that the other 75 could race?
2. What would the RSPCA, PETA, the media and the Australian Veterinary Association think of this?
3. Would Australian pigeons still be allowed to be sent to international races such as the Million Dollar Race (an avian veterinary friend in South Africa has confirmed that this virus is not there)?
4. What about all the exhibiters of fancy pigeons and pet pigeons? With stray racing pigeons carrying and spreading the disease, how do these people protect themselves? Could pigeon shows, particularly the big shows where pigeons come from all around the country, proceed? Stray racing pigeons could easily be attracted to even confined pigeons, defecate in the vicinity and the virus enter the loft. One fancier, whose loft was infected, could enter birds in the ANPA National show with its average entry of 3000 birds and decimate the best exhibition birds in the country.
5, It would be very divisive. The sport would be divided between those that were infected and those that were not. The sport should pull together over issues like this and not become further divided.
Fanciers should remember (please refer to my post of 30th December) that recovered birds are not immune for life and so therefore can catch the disease again. Recovered birds also carry the virus in their system for many months and are infectious to further birds during this time. Birds cannot be ‘cleaned out’ with medication .This approach will not allow the problem to go away. There will always be vulnerable birds and ongoing outbreaks ( as we are seeing with PMV )
My personal opinion is that this is a very arrogant and selfish approach by what I think is likely to be a small number of fanciers, simply so that they can race. Correct decisions need to be made by informed people.
This may be a good time for the Australian National Racing Pigeon Board to demonstrate its relevance and issue a central directive.
To some extent, I think this sort of talk is a panicked response to this situation. We still don’t have all the information that we need to make good decisions. I would remind fanciers that the final diagnostic tests are still in progress . As I advised on yesterday’s post AgriBio has advised that the virus sequencing results may be available as early as the end of next week. I have today spoken with Pfizer. They have advised that it may be possible to import one of their vaccines within 2 to 3 months if in fact the sequencing results indicate that it may give protection to Australian pigeons.
I have had discussions with Dr Christina Mc Cowan at AgriBio today. To some fanciers it may seem as if progress is slow but in terms of virus ID, things are proceeding at a blistering pace. The second egg passage of virus will occur this week and all going well the virus sequencing may be completed by the end of next week. We will then be able to see if these results are consistent with the electron microscopy images. As discussed in earlier emails whether we are able to race this year or not probably depends on the gene sequencing results. If we find that the Reo virus shares a lot of similarities with the Chicken Reo virus vaccines overseas then there should be a reasonable amount of cross immunity and these vaccines should be able to protect our pigeons. Even if there is a lower amount of shared genes we may still be able to protect our birds with these vaccines but may have to vaccinate them several times. We will still have to face the hurdle of getting APVMA approval to import a vaccine. All going well this has the potential to be done in several months. It may however not be possible to get the permit before the middle of the year. If there is little similarity on the gene sequencing between the Australian Reo and overseas chicken Reo virus vaccines then the other alternative will be to have a vaccine made here. This is a long process and I have been advised that it would probably not be completed until the middle of next year (which means that we would probably not be racing)
I have spoken to Dr Mark White today. Dr White will be familiar to many Sydney fanciers. He runs Treidlia Biovet Pty Ltd , a company that makes vaccines . I am grateful for his input and advice. He advises :-
“1) Getting approval to import vaccines is not easy. We have been involved with this in other areas. Realistically, given all the regulatory hurdles, especially with viral vaccines, I don’t believe anybody could do that in time for this coming racing season. That’s aside from whether such a vaccine would give cross-protection or not.
2) Getting approval to make vaccines here is not easy either. Again there are a lot of regulatory hurdles, especially for viral vaccines. For example the seed and the cell-line must be approved by Quarantine as if they were imported ingredients. Again I don’t believe anybody could do it in time for the coming racing season. Especially since at this time we don’t even have a defined prototype seed or a manufacturing method.
3) The other obstacle is that currently there are no production facilities licensed in Australia to make viral vaccines that are interested in niche small scale vaccines like this. There are only the big companies making big products.
It’s a combination of regulatory barriers and differences between local and overseas strains of the virus. A Reovirus vaccine would need to be an across-the-board vaccine as truly autogenous vaccines for small scale operations like lofts are not really viable, especially for viral vaccine.
In my view the pigeon federations will be faced with hard decisions re racing this year as vaccine availability in time for next year is about the best we could hope for. “
If a vaccine needs to be made Dr White will be able to offer valuable input. Some Australian companies do have registered Reo vaccines overseas and may be able to gain permits to import these vaccines quicker. It may still be possible to get these vaccines before the middle of the year. I intend to start the permit process now so that if the sequencing shows that these vaccines are likely to be protective we will already be a few weeks ‘down the road’ in the permit application process by the time the sequencing results are available. I have meetings with some of the international vaccine companies tomorrow.
Where did Reo come from ?
In the mid 1980’s the PMV virus that causes Newcastle disease in chickens altered slightly. These changes ( also called mutations or genetic shifts) occur commonly but this change altered the type of bird that the virus could infect. The new slightly altered PMV could still infect chickens but no longer caused disease in them. The new virus did however now cause severe disease in pigeons. This is why chicken PMV and pigeon PMV are so similar and also why the chicken PMV vaccine gives good cross immunity in pigeons. Reo viruses are common in the avian world. They are found in many wild birds in Australia. They are commonly found in starlings, sparrows, ducks and a whole range of birds. The most likely thing that has happened is that one of these Reo viruses has changed slightly so that it now infects pigeons. In this way the virus can seem to come from nowhere. It has in fact been here all the time but just in a slightly different form
How is Reo spread?
Reo is caught through the inadvertent ingestion of droppings when the birds are eating or drinking. It can also be caught by inhaling the dust created from drying droppings. If droppings or dust from a loft gets onto fanciers clothing, hands or shoes then the virus can be spread by fanciers going from loft to loft or to shows or sales. Reo can also be shed vertically ie through the egg. This means that youngsters can be weaned with the virus. These youngsters don’t get sick because they also get immunity from their mother. These youngsters can however shed the virus and infect other pigeons ( probably for several months )
Do all birds from infected lofts carry the virus?
No not all birds will be long term carriers . Different birds will clear the virus at different rates. Overseas they report carrier states of 280 to 285 days. This represents the longest that birds are known to carry the virus
Change to AgriBio requirements.
Unfortunately Agri Bio in Victoria has advised that they can no longer accept suspect Reo cases for diagnosis for no charge. They have advised today that they now have plenty of cases already. I am unsure of what is happening in the other states where the disease is not so prevalent. The DPI departments there may still be taking them. Fanciers should ring their local vet or DPI
Commonly asked questions
Why have some birds been sent to WA and not become unwell?
We would expect 1, 2 or 3 of every 10 birds sent to WA and placed in a loft previously diagnosed with Reo virus to die. Of course, this would only happen if the WA birds were still carriers of the virus or the virus was persistent in the loft environment. We know that the carrier state exists for at least several months because birds from around Busselton, when transported several months after the initial outbreak with the previously unwell WA birds caught the disease in the race baskets from them. Overseas Reo virus in pigeons has been shown to have a carrier state of 280-285 days. The Reo virus in Australia is not likely to be significantly different. Further testing will identify more precisely both the length of time that the birds remain carriers and also the length of time that the virus persists in the environment. Fanciers will recall that it took a lengthy trial of 18 months for us to get all the answers about PMV in 2012-2013. Until shown to be otherwise, I feel it is safer to be cautious
Why does it seem to be older birds that are more severely affected by Reo virus?
It is a characteristic of Reo viruses that they target mature birds. It is thought that birds with a functional Bursa of Fabricius are to some extent protected from the virus. The Bursa of Fabricius is a ball of tonsil-like tissue found just inside the vent. This is well developed in young pigeons but shrivels up and disappears by the start of puberty (about 6 months). Once the Bursa has gone, birds become more susceptible to Reo virus infections.
“Toxic Bowel and Liver Syndrome” What the ….. ?
In the last update, I advised fanciers to be wary of some information on the internet. The next day, I saw on the internet an article titled “Official Toxic Bowel and Liver Disease Outbreak Management Information Update”. I feel that I need to inform fanciers that the word ‘Official’ here is misleading in that the ‘update’ is not endorsed by any racing or fancy pigeon organisation or indeed any veterinary authority involved in the primary investigation of the virus. The term ‘Toxic Bowel and Liver Disease’ is not a recognised veterinary term. “Toxic Bowel and Liver Disease “ is not a recognised veterinary condition but rather an invention of the author. The theory suggested in the ‘update’ is purely that of the author. The same author has advised for the last 6 months, and up to only 2 weeks ago, that the current disease problem is best explained by concurrent infections of two different types of Adeno virus in the bowel and liver. He now advises that the problem is the result on an unknown virus in the bowel causing damage and allowing toxic bacteria to proliferate in the bowel and release poisons that damage the liver. Both explanations are not consistent with the available test results and are at odds with the advice of the expert pathologists at the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne, AAHL (Australian Animal Health Labs) and AgriBio, who all tell us that the birds are dying of irreparable damage to the liver by a likely Reo virus.
I am puzzled as to what might be the motivation behind all this. I do note, however, that the ‘diagnosis’ is accompanied by an elaborate treatment plan. As far as I am aware, the products recommended are not stocked, endorsed or used by any other veterinarian and are therefore all supplied by the author. Fanciers are recommended to buy and use up to six of these products on some days to save their birds. I will leave fanciers to draw their own conclusions.
The way forward
I have a strong sense of obligation to fanciers and believe that they should only be presented with facts, not theories. We all still have a long way to go in solving this problem. In Victoria, it only took 11 days to get a diagnosis. It is still only 19 days since the first cases in Victoria, and although this has spanned a holiday period, significant advances have been made in investigating ways of effectively protecting our birds so that fanciers don’t have to risk losing a proportion of their birds and normal racing and showing can resume. We need to work together if this is going to be achieved as quickly as possible.
In the meantime viral identification continues. I am keen to see the results of the gene sequencing as soon as they are available(about 2-3 weeks ). These results will tell us whether any of the Reo chicken vaccines available overseas are likely to confer cross immunity to pigeons .If these results show that the chicken vaccines are unlikely to work our only other option is to make a vaccine here. I have meetings this week with several vaccine companies.
If fanciers feel that their birds may have caught Reo virus please refer to the treatment advice posted on the24th Dec and also the advice on getting a diagnosis posted on 30th Dec. As outlined , fanciers should contact either their vet or their local District Veterinary Office ( DVO ) for a submit form for diagnostic work. DVO contact details for each state can be found on the internet by googling DPI and then the State. If you get stuck please feel free to ring our clinic on 03 9764 9000 and our nurses can help you
Several further lofts have been identified as infected with Reo virus over the last 24 hours. All are located in the north western suburbs of Melbourne.
Fanciers need to be responsible.
Although no official ruling is in place, fanciers whose lofts have been diagnosed with the disease or are suspicious that their birds are infected should out of consideration for others and the best interests of the sport, notify fanciers who live nearby and make every effort to avoid the further spread of the disease. I feel that this should include the confinement of their birds. It is not a fancier’s fault if he gets the disease but it is certainly his fault if he gets the disease, does not tell anyone and continues practices that contribute to the spread of the disease.
It was very strange when this virus first entered Victoria. We were the first clinic to be presented with cases. This occurred on Monday 12 th Dec. We had samples away for diagnosis and were speaking to the pathologists daily, the diagnostic process was proceeding as fast as it could and the earliest any results would be available was on the Friday. Yet on the Thursday I was c/c ed into a mass email stating that Adeno virus had been diagnosed in Melbourne. Obviously this was totally inaccurate but what bothers me the most is that someone was happy to send out this information when they had to know it was not true. Frustratingly, misinformation continues to be spread. It is very disappointing to see on the internet people attempting to profit from the outbreak. Various drugs and treatment plans are being advertised to stop deaths in 7 days (deaths stop around this time anyway, as a consequence of the virus coming to the end of its natural course) and to stimulate the immune system and thereby reduce deaths. Some have invented new names for this condition (which just confuses everybody) and have become overnight experts even though they may not have seen any affected birds, have not been involved in the diagnostic work and certainly have not had time to demonstrate treatments as being effective.
Fanciers should avoid theories and stick to evidence-based fact. What we do know is that when Reo virus enters a loft, birds develop a green diarrhoea and start to vomit. Once birds look sick they usually die within 12 to 24 hours. All birds in the loft become infected. After about 7 days, deaths stop. Mortality rates range from 15 to 40 %. Recovered birds carry the virus in their system and are infectious to other birds for about 10 months. As mentioned in earlier updates, the only treatment that to date appears to have some anecdotal benefit is to treat the birds as soon as any look sick with a course of an antibiotic such as Sulpha AVS. The level of care that the vast majority of racing pigeons receive is more than adequate to ensure that the immune system is functioning optimally and as the virus runs a natural course of about 7 days deaths will naturally stop then no matter what is given. My advice is not to be gullible and waste your money. Also I cannot emphasise strongly enough that the birds are not dying of secondary infections. We have autopsied and tested many birds now. It is the virus that is killing them and there is no direct treatment for the virus. The focus now should be on accurately diagnosing the problem in each loft where birds start to die, controlling the spread of the disease and developing a way to protect the birds through immunisation.
Progress .Vaccine development.
I have had discussions with two drug companies over the Xmas break. One has the ability to make an autogenous vaccine (ie vaccine made here from the Australian Reo) here in Australia. To do this however would require an APVMA permit and this may take months to obtain. The other cannot currently make a vaccine here but does have a combined PMV/ Reo vaccine registered for use in chickens overseas. It has not been trialled in pigeons. Because of the urgency of the situation a special permit could be obtained to import this vaccine This would take about 2 months which is probably quick enough to immunise the birds before racing but the difficulty is that the Reo virus in the overseas vaccine may not be sufficiently similar to the Australian Reo for cross immunity to occur. One of the ways to find out if cross immunity is likely to occur is to sequence the Reo here and see how much it matches the vaccine Reo. A lot of similarities would mean that the vaccine would be likely to work here. What is involved and how long will this take? Dr Grant Rawlin from AAHL explains
“Assuming this thing is new, Whole Genome Sequencing will realistically take weeks rather than days (but not months). One good thing we know now, is that there was lots of virus in the lesion preparation under EM. This should make the sequencing run a bit more smoothly. Whole Genome Sequencing essentially multiplies up every bit of DNA in the sample - then you match the huge result with databases of DNA sequences and work out anything that shows up that matches or is unusual. As you can imagine, if you have more of the target virus in a sample the signal is better and it stands out more”.
So how likely is it that there will be enough similarities for cross immunity to occur?
Dr Rawlin goes on to explain
“ There are about a dozen sero-types of reos in chickens, turkeys and geese and none of these cause disease pathology primarily in the liver ( which is what the Australian Reo does). The vaccine contains 3 serotypes of most importance to poultry only. ie the chances of a cross reaction is pretty slim.”
In the meantime viral cultures are being harvested today and samples are being sent for molecular work to continue the ID process. There are other overseas vaccines that could be evaluated for cross immunity very quickly once the genome of the Australian Reo is known. If we get a match these could be imported and used. Also there are other vaccine companies that may be able to make an autogenous vaccine that could be supplied under direct veterinary script to clients negating the need for an APVMA permit ( possibly ). I will continue to investigate. Over the Xmas break I have had Phil Lehrbach from Pfizer, Robin Anderson from Intervet, Prof Amir from Melbourne Uni , Dr Rawlin from AAHL, pathologists at AgriBio and Peter Scott of CCEAD all take the time to respond to emails and phone me giving their time and advice freely when most are in real holiday mode. I am most appreciative.
Extent of the Disease.
Cases have been confirmed in Victoria , NSW and South Australia. There was a suggestion that some birds had the disease in Cairns in QLD but these have been shown to have PMV. Similarly a suspect case in Lysterfield yesterday is still undiagnosed but has already shown not to be Reo. A suspect loft in Dromana from yesterday is still being investigated. So far we have about 25 confirmed cases in Victoria; the majority are in rural lofts. There have been further suspect cases throughout metro Melbourne but fanciers have failed to have diagnostic work done. Suspect cases have also been identified in Westminster in WA in high flying pigeons recently. I presume DAFWA is investigating.
Getting an accurate diagnosis of Reo - made easy by DEPI ( Department Of Environment and Primary Industry )
It is important to remember that every unwell pigeon over the next few months will not have Reo virus. Many other problems look similar and are quite common. It is imperative that fanciers seek an accurate diagnosis if their birds become unwell. AgriBio is making this easy for fanciers. The government is still offering free testing. Fanciers simply need to take unwell pigeons or freshly dead pigeons to AgriBio at the Latrobe University campus. The birds need to be accompanied by a submit form completed by a veterinarian. AgriBio has asked vets to be discerning and only fill in submit forms for cases that are consistent with a possible Reo virus infection. So, if you birds are unwell, contact your veterinarian, explain what is going on, if they feel your birds could have Reo, collect a submit form from them and take the birds to AgriBio. Even easier, if it is not possible for you to take the birds there, contact your local District Veterinary Officer ( DVO ) who may be able to collect the bird from you. The DVO can also provide the submit form. For all of this there is no charge. This is a great example of a special interest group and the DEPI working together to solve a problem. There is absolutely no reason not to get an accurate diagnosis of Reo. Of course if your veterinarian thinks that the problem is not a Reo infection then they will be able to diagnose the problem for you. In this situation you may or may not wish to proceed but if you do then normal charges will apply.
Should we just let the virus run its course and then we can all get on and race this year?
This approach makes no sense. If the virus behaves the same way as in WA this would result in the deaths of 15% - 40 % of the Australian pigeon population. As there are an estimated 500,000 racing pigeons in Australia and these represent about half of all pigeons this would result in the deaths of 150,000 to 400,000 pigeons. Recovered birds are not immune for life and so therefore can catch the disease again. Recovered birds also carry the virus in their system for many months and are infectious to further birds during this time. Birds cannot be ‘cleaned out’ with medication .This approach will not allow the problem to go away. There will always be vulnerable birds and ongoing outbreaks ( as we are seeing with PMV ). We need to develop a vaccine to give fanciers a way of protecting their birds. Very few fanciers (myself included), I believe, would be prepared to risk racing this year and potentially lose 15% to 40 % of all their birds if their birds had not been immunised.
I spoke to Agri Bio yesterday and the Electron Microscopy done at AAHL revealed large numbers of viral particles. Their appearance under the microscope is very suggestive of a Reo virus. The viral cultures are continuing and molecular techniques such as next generation gene sequencing are being organised to complete the viral ID process. It is probably not until the middle of the first week in January ( which is not that long ) until more information will be available. It is now only 10 days since our first cases in Victoria. Dr David Phalen of Sydney University, Dr Amir Noorohammadi of Melbourne University, the staff at AgriBio and AAHL and the office of Victoria’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Charles Milne, are all to be congratulated on the amazingly rapid progression of events
What is Reo Virus?
Reo viruses are widespread and are commonly found in many types of birds including chickens. In many cases it is hard to determine their importance . Sometimes they are there but appear not to be causing disease. Some Reo viruses however have been implicated in disease outbreaks. Reo viruses have been associated with disease in pigeons in Europe , China , South Africa and other countries. AgriBio are fairly confident that the virus they are seeing on the EM images is a Reo but have suggested that at the moment the diagnosis is only provisional. A definitive diagnosis will be made once the viral cultures and gene sequencing are complete. There are no Reo vaccines in Australia. There are however vaccines for similar viruses that may confer some cross immunity. We are seeking the advice of some vaccine specialists
Is the use of PMV vaccine in some way linked to the current problem?
The short answer is absolutely not. One of the principle aims of the 18 month PMV vaccine trial that was conducted in 2013 was to ensure that the suggested vaccine protocol did the pigeons no harm. None could be demonstrated. The test results passed the rigorous standards of the APVMA enabling Pfizer to register the vaccine for use in pigeons. The trial was also published in the prestigious peer reviewed Australian Veterinary Journal. These ultimate authorities were happy with the conclusions that the suggested protocol was not harmful to pigeons and conferred strong immunity. The killed La Sota based vaccine used in Australia is used in many counties around the world including the UK and USA.
How are we going to make the birds immune ?
Now that we appear to have a diagnosis we need to figure out a way of developing an immunity to Reo in Australian pigeons so that racing and showing can occur this year. When a new disease gets into a naïve population the effect of that disease can be fairly dramatic . As time goes by the population will start to build up an immunity and the signs associated with the disease will become more vague and less severe. It is likely therefore that the impact of Reo will be greatest in the next 2 – 3 years. It will always be with us but it is likely that its effect will be less in the future
I have today spoken to Dr Chris Morrow of Bioproperties and Dr Peter Scott of Scolexia and the CCEAD ( Consultative Committee of Emergency Animal Disease ).
A number of points have been raised
1/ There are no Reo vaccines available in Australia. A disease called Infectious Bursal Disease in chickens is caused by a different virus but one that does share some similar surface proteins. Despite this, it is thought that no cross immunity would develop if this vaccine was used in pigeons
2/Reo vaccines are available overseas. These could be imported under permit. It is thought unlikely however that these would confer protective immunity in Australian pigeons
3/ A Reo vaccine could be made in Australia. This is possible and has the advantage that it would be made from the strain of Reo virus that is here. This is currently our best option. I have 2 companies in mind and will speak to each of them the first day that they reopen after the Xmas break
4/ Interferon development - interferon is a substance produced by the body either in response to viral infection or vaccination. Once produced interferon can help to protect the body against other viruses for a short time, usually about 2 weeks. It may be that vaccinating with a live vaccine, for example PMV ND4 in the face of an outbreak will reduce the severity of the disease and deaths caused by Reo virus. This may also occur after Salmonella vaccination, but it is thought that immune mediators such as interferon produced after vaccination for a bacterial disease may not be as effective as that produced after vaccination against a viral disease in this situation. Two WA fanciers who had recently vaccinated against Salmonella did however have much lower death rates in their birds than other fanciers
5/ As mentioned in yesterday’s post, the ability of some viruses to penetrate the bowel, enter the body and cause disease is affected by the population of bowel bacteria. There is anecdotal evidence that treating birds at the start of an outbreak with antibiotics may reduce the number of deaths
What to do if you think the virus has entered your loft
In the longer term the answer will be to make sure that your birds are vaccinated against Reo and don’t get sick in the first place but in the mean time
1/Start a course of Sulpha AVS (or another brand of trimethoprim/ sulphadiazine ) 3 grams to 4 L of water or enrofloxacin (eg “Baytril “ or “Enrotril “ 5 – 10 ml per L for 5 days ( at least )
2 /Consider vaccination with NDV 4 or Bioproperties Salmonella Vaccine
3/ Practice general good care ( as most of us do all the time anyway ) ie good hygiene, nutritious diet, no overcrowding particularly of babies, good parasite control, treat any diagnosed ( ie identified through accurate testing ) concurrent health problems in the loft. The aim here is simply to get the birds as healthy as we can so that they are best able to resist the virus. There is no need for dietary and other supplements if the above criteria are met.
Virus identification procedures are continuing. As one can imagine I am receiving quite a few phone calls. At one stage yesterday I got 36 phone calls in 2 1/2 hours. I have answered some of the common questions below. This site will continue to be updated daily
Are recovered birds immune?
It is likely that recovered birds are immune for a period of time, probably months. We don’t know exactly how long this time will be. Only testing will tell us. It really depends on what type of virus we are dealing with. For example, birds that have recovered from Pox virus are immune for life while we know from testing done during the initial PMV outbreak done in 2012 that in birds that have had PMV , after 12 months 10% are vulnerable to re infection. The number rises steadily with each month. This is why birds need annual PMV vaccinations.
Is it worthwhile treating birds with this virus with drugs such as antibiotics?
The virus causes massive liver damage and the birds die principally of liver failure due to this. We have not identified any birds that have died of secondary infections. This means that there is no advantage in randomly giving the birds antibiotics. However there are some viruses whose absorption into the body is affected by the population of bowel bacteria . It may be that giving antibiotics strategically at the start of an outbreak reduces viral absorption and therefore reduces deaths. Fanciers should speak to their veterinarian to see what antibiotics may be suitable in this situation. It is early days but as further results become available it may be that measures such as vaccination against Salmonella may have longer term benefits in protecting the birds against viral invasion. Giving birds things like eucalyptus oil and “Pine O Clean “ are of no benefit.
What happens when the virus gets into a loft?
Typically nothing happens for a period of about 5 days. Some birds then start to vomit, develop green diarrhoea and a hunched posture. Sick birds die usually within 12 to 24 hours. All birds that become sick die. All birds in the loft become infected with the virus. Deaths continue for about 7 days. Between 15 and 45% of birds die. If you have unwell birds in your loft and are seeing a different pattern of disease then it is likely that you have another problem in your loft. Other viral diseases such as Circo, Adeno, PMV and Herpes as well as other diseases such as Chlamydia can look similar
Can the disease be treated?
There is no treatment for the virus. Many things however can appear to work. Any treatment given several days into an outbreak can appear to ‘cure’ the disease. In fact, the virus runs a natural course of about 7 days and deaths will stop naturally around this time
Are recovered birds cured?
No, all birds in the loft are infected. Birds that survive the outbreak may look completely normal but in fact are carrying the virus in their systems and can infect other pigeons. Long term testing will identify how long recovered birds act as carriers. This depends on the type of virus. For example we know that with PMV, birds act as carriers for 60 days, with Herpes it is lifelong and with Circo it is about 4 to 6 months. With this virus it appears that the carrier state ( and therefore the time that recovered birds are infectious to others ) is between 5 and 10 months
How long before we know what type of virus is causing the disease ie the virus is identified ?
The first cases in Victoria were 10 days ago. Initial autopsy and histopathology results were available in 4 days. Virus identification procedures started the same day ie 6 days ago. Virus identification results could be available as early as the next few days. It is unlikely that it will be more than 4 weeks. Virus typing is absolutely critical. Once we can identify the virus then we can predict how it is likely to behave . In turn this enables us to make the correct decisions about its control
What is the plan to bring this disease under control?
PLAN and AIMS
Control of spread of virus—strict biosecurity, no inter-loft movement of bird or fanciers
Completion of ID virus
Develop tentative immune protocol to offer fanciers some means of protecting their birds ASAP
Long term trial to develop “best “ and proven method of protecting birds
I had a teleconference yesterday evening with the National Pigeon Racing Board with Stephen Eggleton. Greg Kakoschke,, Mark Jeffrey, Peter Wallace, Grant Paterson, Ken Wilson and Len Van der Linden in attendance. The outbreak was discussed generally. In particular the possible need for funding for further diagnostics and immunology trials was discussed. I spoke to DAFWA ( The Dept of Agriculture and Forestry WA ) yesterday. They are releasing a report on their investigation of the outbreak in WA in the new year. Meanwhile in Victoria viral diagnostics continue. AgriBio received birds from several more affected country lofts through regional District Veterinary Officers yesterday. All birds are very consistent with the same symptoms, gross autopsy changes and histopathology . Viral cultures in embryonated eggs are still in progress. Depending on the virus, results could be available as early as next week but could take up to 4 weeks. Samples have been sent to AAHL for electron microscopy. AgriBio and AAHL do not close for Xmas and I will speak to the duty pathologist daily. I will be speaking on Pigeon Radio on Monday at 7.10 Pm if anyone would like to tune in or has questions for me.
Stephen Kearsey and I had a meeting yesterday with Victoria’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Charles Milne. All aspects of the current outbreaks were discussed. Dr Milne is well aware of the severity of the problem and the need for rapid diagnosis. It was agreed that the top priority is the rapid diagnosis of the condition. I have also had correspondence with Dr Grant Rawlin at AAHL. Diagnostic work continues at AgriBio with viral cultures in embryonated eggs, histopathology and possible EM. There is a report that PIRSA has also forwarded to AAHL samples from an infected loft in Port Augusta. We also have reports of infected lofts in Dandenong overnight.
Further birds may be needed for diagnosis. Fanciers who think that their birds may be infected should contact me directly 0412481239.
The four presidents and secretaries of the four racing federations, myself and Stephen Kearsey met at the VHA headquarters in Notting Hill today. The Fed representatives were updated about the current outbreak situation. The outbreak was discussed generally as well as the best way to address the problem in a combined way.
A readily transmissible viral disease was identified in racing pigeons in Victoria last week. Affected lofts experience mortality rates of approximately 30 %. Initial testing has ruled out Adeno, PMV and Herpes virus infections. The virus is likely, however, to be the same virus that affected WA racing lofts earlier this year. Testing has identified a number of virus’ as possible causes with one in particular being most likely. It may be that some poultry vaccines will be able to protect pigeons. Diagnostic work continues. In the meantime every effort should be made to avoid the movement of birds between lofts. Some fanciers may wish to keep their birds locked down. Similarly flyers should avoid visiting other lofts. Further information will be posted as soon as it is available. Affected birds develop green diarrhoea, start to vomit , become hunched and usually die within 24 hours.
Please note that there has not been a recent outbreak of Adeno virus in Victoria. Adeno virus has not recently been diagnosed in Victoria despite extensive testing and the virus is not associated with the current disease outbreak in Victoria. Adeno virus is also not the virus that caused the outbreak of disease in WA 6 months ago. The messages being spread on the internet and causing fanciers concern are inaccurate and are essentially just gossip
A diagnosis of Adeno virus Type 2 is not a remarkable event in Victoria. Along with the other common viruses in pigeons it is periodically diagnosed, usually about 4 times per year. It is a disease that affects adult pigeons, is hard to transmit and has a low mortality rate. The usual method of diagnosis is examination of tissues microscopically. There is no specific treatment . Treatment is supportive only
It is understandable that fanciers are confused about Adeno virus involvement in this outbreak with everything that has been appearing on the internet. The bogus ‘diagnosis’ of Adeno virus has however had 3 immediate consequences:
1, it has stalled, confused and delayed the diagnostic process
2, it has led to decisions being made that have resulted in WA fanciers inadvertently sending out birds that are still infectious. These have spread the virus out of WA
3,it has to date robbed WA fanciers of developing real ways to protect their birds from the virus.
WA was notified in July that early Victorian testing by the University of Melbourne had indicated that the virus causing the problem was not Adeno virus.
Fanciers should be mindful that much on the internet is unproven and incorrect.