New Zealand's iconic flightless birds, the kiwi and the near-extinct kakapo, will be vaccinated against bird flu if the virus is detected anywhere near this isolated South Pacific nation, a conservationist said Friday.
New Zealand has reported no cases of the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain, but native birds are likely "highly susceptible" to it, said Paul Jansen, leader of the Department of Conservation's kiwi and kakapo recovery team.
Vaccination "is our desired course of action" to prevent a bird flu catastrophe and save these native bird species from "a major zootic event (bird pandemic)," he told The Associated Press.
A "die-off" of 80 percent of kiwi "would be catastrophic ... so we have to make sure we have some gene stock ... that is bullet proof ... to these nasty viruses that are out there," he said.
All 86 surviving kakapo, the world's largest flightless parrot, hundreds of captive kiwi and others in the wild that have been fitted with locator transmitters will to be vaccinated if the virus nears New Zealand, particularly if there are any infections detected in neighboring Australia, Jansen said.
New Zealand's 75,000 remaining kiwi likely would suffer "a high rate of mortality" if H5N1 bird flu reaches New Zealand, he said, adding that the flightless species are more vulnerable to disease because they have never been exposed to foreign diseases.
"New Zealand birds ... are far more naive than a lot of (species) that are on continents which have had huge waves of diseases go through them over the millenia," Jansen said.
The department has not yet determined which vaccines are available or suitable for the protected birds, but a vaccination program is the only way to ensure any kiwi or kakapo would survive a bird flu outbreak.
Authorities are treating the issue as "exceptionally urgent," given the speed at which the deadly H5N1 virus has spread elsewhere, reports the AP.
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