Avian flu poses a ‘significant risk’ to Canadian poultry farms as cases have been reported in several provinces

The highly contagious and deadly bird flu is diffusion among poultry birds in Canada, with government authorities tracking cases at 12 farms so far in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as other possible cases in Alberta and Quebec.

“In Canada, avian flu is a very serious problem. It causes bird mortality and prevents producers from exporting their flocks,” said Craig Price, who leads the avian flu response at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the federal government agency that regulates bird flu. poultry farming in the country.

“The impact on the Canadian poultry industry is quite significant, with exports of approximately $800 million per year to various markets. We see, every time we have an infected establishment, the export loss of these production areas.”

The hardest hit region right now is in southern Ontario, where cases have been found on six farms. Farms with crates are quarantined, but countless other farms within a 10 kilometer radius have also been subject to strict movement controls, Price said, disrupting industry over a wide area.

Where does the flu come from

The cases are linked to contact with wild birds, and Price says they may develop as birds migrate north in the spring from the United States to Canada. There have been 130 outbreaks in 24 US states

A goose, duck, red-tailed hawk and crested merganser have 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.

According to Price, based on what is happening in the United States, bird flu will likely spread to all provinces in Canada.

Although the impact on birds is severe, it is rare for the current type of bird flu, H5N1, to infect humans. Samira Mubareka, a physician at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center and a virologist at the University of Toronto, says vigilance is key to ensuring any human cases are detected early.

Dr. Samira Mubareka, a researcher at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, says vigilance is key to ensuring any human cases of bird flu are caught early. “You don’t want to miss the first one. (Submitted/Sunnybrook)

“There really hasn’t been any sustained human-to-human transmission and there have been no human cases,” she said. “But again, you don’t want to miss the first one.”

Keeping an eye on human health

This means that in areas with bird flu cases, health workers should check people with flu symptoms for contact with birds and ensure they are being checked for the H5N1 strain.

“I think the most important thing is just to be vigilant, to make sure people are aware of it, so they’re asking the right questions about 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 for handling and cooking meat properly were sufficient.

The COVID-19 pandemic could have both positive and negative consequences for tracking the spread of avian influenza. Mubareka said public health systems would likely be more confident in how to respond if cases arise in humans, due to their experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, health workers are under strain.

“I think it could really stress the limited resources,” Mubareka said. “But in terms of preparation, in some ways we are better off.”

Lock farms

Karen Woolley runs Woolley Wonderland Farm in Lakehurst, Ontario. She has hundreds of birds on her farm, including chickens, and all are currently kept indoors for protection.

Woolley’s farm has strict movement restrictions due to bird flu cases at another nearby farm.

“I kind of dubbed this ‘COVID chicken,’ even though it’s not COVID,” Woolley said.

“It’s the same type of farm lockdown for chickens, farm lockdown for guests, which we don’t want to do. We have to do it to keep our livelihoods.”

Karen Woolley is limiting visitors to her farm and has supplemented her dogs to ward off any migratory birds that may approach. (Katie Nicholson/CBC)

Woolley usually takes her animals on the road to visit seniors’ residences, schools, fairs and other events. This year, she says she took the chickens out of the mix. His dogs are also delegated to hunt migratory birds that may land on the farm.

She limits visitors to her farm, and anyone entering the barn where the birds are kept must change their shoes, in case they step into the droppings of infected birds outside.

“Hopefully we’ll get through this,” Woolley said.

“We hope this doesn’t attack too many farms and that everyone stays safe by doing these diligent things to maintain biosecurity.”

With files from Katie Nicholson and Simon Dingley.