Highly contagious and deadly avian influenza is spreading among poultry in Canada, with government authorities tracking cases on 12 farms so far in Ontario, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as possible additional cases in Alberta and Quebec.
“In Canada, avian influenza is a very serious problem. It causes bird mortality and prevents producers from exporting their flocks,” said Craig Price, who leads the response to avian influenza at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. agency of the federal government that regulates poultry farming in the country.
“The impact on the Canadian poultry industry is quite significant, with exports of around $800 million a year to various markets. We see, every time we have infected facilities, the loss of exports from those producing areas.”
The hardest-hit area right now is southern Ontario, where cases have been found on six farms. Farms with cases are under quarantine, but countless other farms within 10 kilometers have also had strict movement controls in place, Price said, disrupting the industry in a large area.
where does the flu come from
Cases are linked to contact with wild birds, and Price says they may increase as birds migrate north during the spring from the US to Canada. There have been 130 outbreaks in 24 US states.
A goose, a duck, a red-tailed hawk and a red-breasted merganser have all tested positive for the strain in Ontario in recent weeks. The strain was also detected in a Canada goose and two snow geese in Quebec.
Price says that based on what’s happening in the US, bird flu is likely to spread to every province in Canada.
Although the impact on birds is severe, it is rare for the current type of avian influenza, H5N1, to infect humans. Samira Mubareka, a physician at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center and a virologist at the University of Toronto, says surveillance is key to making sure any human cases are caught early.
“There really has been no sustained person-to-person transmission and there have been no human cases,” he said. “But again, you don’t want to miss the first one.”
monitoring human health
That means that in regions experiencing cases of bird flu, health workers should check if people showing flu symptoms have had contact with birds and make sure they are tested for the H5N1 strain.
“I think the most important thing is to be vigilant, to make sure people are aware, to ask the right questions about the exposure,” Mubareka said.
The virus can infect a person if they come into very close contact with an infected bird, Mubareka said. But it would probably have to mutate to spread from person to person.
A person cannot become infected by eating cooked chicken or other poultry. Mubareka said all standard precautions to handle and cook the meat properly were sufficient.
The COVID-19 pandemic could have both positive and negative consequences for monitoring the spread of avian influenza. Mubareka said that public health systems would likely have more confidence in how to react if human cases emerged, given his experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, health workers are on edge.
“I think that could really stress limited resources,” Mubareka said. “But in terms of preparation, we are better in some ways.”
Karen Woolley runs the Woolley Wonderland Farm in Lakehurst, Ontario. She has hundreds of birds on her farm, including chickens, and all of them are now kept indoors for protection.
Woolley’s farm has strict movement restrictions due to cases of avian flu at another nearby farm.
“I dubbed this ‘chicken covid,’ even though it’s not covid,” Woolley said.
“It’s the same kind of shutting down the farm for chickens, shutting down the farm for guests, which we don’t want to do. We have to do it to support our livelihood.”
Woolley often takes her animals on tour to visit nursing homes, schools, fairs and other events. This year, he says that he has taken the chickens out of the mix. His dogs are also being designated to scare away any migratory birds that may land on the farm.
She is restricting visitors to her farm, and anyone entering the barn where the birds are kept must change their shoes, in case they step on infected bird droppings outside.
“We hope to get through this,” Woolley said.
“Hopefully it doesn’t hit too many farms and everyone stays safe by doing those diligent things to maintain biosecurity.”
With files from Katie Nicholson and Simon Dingley.