Farm biosecurity measures that worked during past outbreaks appear to be working less well this time around. The reason is unknown.
Fear slides over Juszka Clark as she hears geese chirping in the distance.
“I bet you haven’t even heard of that,” a Chilliwack chicken farmer told his neighbor. “But I’ll do it. I always listen to the birds.”
Wild birds are the main source of the spread of avian influenza in British Columbia, with new cases detected daily on commercial poultry farms, with four cases reported on Friday and 10 more in the previous seven days. are doing.
Theresa Burns, B.C.’s chief veterinarian, said the scale of the outbreak is unprecedented in B.C. this year, even counting from December 2021, when the first H5N1 case appeared in Canada. Stated.
As of Friday afternoon, with new cases confirmed on farms in Chilliwack and Surrey, 36 herds in British Columbia, almost all in the Fraser Valley, were infected with the virus, the most in the province ever. More than 100 flocks and more than 3.7 million birds were infected in one year. 2 years.
The B.C. cases represent the largest number of cases in Canada in an outbreak that is devastating poultry and wild bird populations worldwide and poses an ongoing risk to humans. This accounts for about half of the total. The WHO warned that increasing detections in mammals such as cats, dogs, seals and sea lions are raising concerns that the virus could become more transmissible to humans.
Bonnie Henry with the B.C. Department of Health urged people who live or work on poultry farms to get vaccinated against the flu. Although avian influenza does not easily infect humans, it is possible to infect humans, and people who are infected with both human and avian viruses may produce a new type of influenza virus that is more contagious to humans. ” he said.
In birds, H5N1 is deadly.
The virus, typically spread by wild birds such as birds that migrate south as the weather gets colder, thrives in cool, wet weather. The fields of the Fraser Valley provide food and a perfect place to overwinter.
“It’s a bit of a mixing pot,” Burns said. “There are probably more opportunities for wild birds to shed the virus.”
Well-intentioned people trying to save sick geese can spread the flu, as can walking through puddles of bird droppings or dirty water on the ground.
B.C. Poultry Association spokeswoman Amanda Britten said farmers often check on their flocks at night and see nothing wrong, but when they return in the morning they find the flocks dead or dying. It is said that there is a possibility that
It was a traumatic experience that required us to euthanize the surviving birds and begin the process of composting them in a sealed barn. The cleaning and disinfection process will be led by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Once the risk has passed, it can be difficult to obtain new chickens as other farms may also be looking for chicks.
Although farmers have insurance, the financial losses are significant and are compounded by the emotional burden.
“Farmers are doing everything they can to protect their herds,” Britten said. “They have the best biosecurity measures in place, but the virus is still getting into the barn.”
The big question is how. Methods used to protect commercial poultry in the past appear to be less effective against H5N1.
Since British Columbia’s first major avian influenza outbreak in 2004, when 16 million birds in the Fraser Valley were culled to prevent its spread, poultry farmers have significantly improved biosecurity to prevent outbreaks. has almost been prevented.
In addition to wearing different coveralls, Clark changes her shoes at least three times when she goes from her house to the barn. Her barn is behind a locked gate and vehicle access is prohibited except to pick up eggs and deliver feed. All tools that leave the barn are bagged and cleaned, and the process goes through again when they return.
It has become a way of life, she said.
But despite these measures, the virus is spreading rapidly, making it unclear how long farmers will be able to cope with the “new normal.”
“My heart almost stops when I hear that a friend or another farmer is infected,” Clark said. “We rely on each other quite a bit. We reach out and offer support to people who are experiencing hardship.”
Clark said he has never heard of anyone considering quitting.
“Farmers are tough,” she said, noting that several farms in her area also lost flocks in the 2021 floods.
Britten said the poultry association is tracking research being done in British Columbia and around the world. France has decided to vaccinate 64 million ducks with the H5N1 vaccine, but the move will prevent bird exports because vaccination makes avian influenza difficult to detect.
“It’s become an international trade issue,” she said. “If science can catch up and figure out what’s going on, maybe there’s a way we can address this problem. But given the amount of stress and anxiety this is causing at the moment, I don’t think that can become the new normal.”
Burns said the unprecedented nature of the H5N1 virus makes it difficult to predict what will happen next.
Last winter, infections in B.C. peaked in mid-December. Something similar could happen this year, causing another disturbance when migratory birds return in the spring.
Wild birds develop immunity to past avian influenza strains, sometimes within a few months. That hasn’t happened yet with H5N1, but there’s still hope that it will happen, but it could take longer, perhaps three to five years. Ultimately, the future of the virus remains uncertain, the chief veterinarian said.
Mr Burns said there was no risk to food safety from the outbreak as avian influenza cannot be transmitted from cooked poultry and meat or eggs from infected farms would not enter the food chain. Ta.
Britten said he doesn’t expect any price increases because under Canada’s supply management system, British Columbia can source chicken and eggs from other provinces to make up for short-term shortages, but grocery It pointed out that prices in stores are set by food retailers. Five local turkey farms have been affected, but they should still be able to get turkeys for Christmas.
Back in Chilliwack, Clark continues to stare at the sky.
Freezing winters can send wild birds south in search of warmer climates. It would be a welcome sight to see swirling snowflakes instead of snow geese.