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B.C. avian flu cases rise rapidly in unprecedented, deadly outbreak

Farm biosecurity measures that worked in past outbreaks don't seem to be working as well this time. It's unclear why.
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A file photo of a chicken farm in Abbotsford. Recent cases of a deadly avian flu strain have been centred in the Fraser Valley. JONATHAN HAYWARD, THE CANADIAN PRESS

Dread slips over Juschka Clarke at the sound of wild geese in the distance.

“I bet you don’t even hear that,” the Chilliwack chicken farmer said to a neighbour. “But I do. I’m always listening for the wild birds.”

Wild birds are largely responsible for the spread of avian influenza in B.C., with new cases being detected on commercial poultry farms each day, including four on Friday and 10 more in the seven days before that.

The scale of the outbreak is unprecedented, said B.C.’s chief veterinarian Theresa Burns, whether you count from December 2021 when the first case of H5N1 appeared in Canada, or look only at B.C. this year.

Thirty-six B.C. flocks, almost all in the Fraser Valley, were infected with the virus as of Friday afternoon when new cases were detected on farms in Chilliwack and Surrey, with more than 100 flocks and 3.7 million birds infected in the province over the last two years.

B.C. cases make up about half of all Canadian cases in an outbreak that is devastating poultry and wild bird populations around the world, while posing a continuing risk to humans. The WHO has warned that increasing detection in mammals, like cats, dogs, seals and sea lions, raises concerns that the virus might adapt to infect humans more easily.

B.C. provincial health office Bonnie Henry has urged people who live or work on poultry farms to get a flu shot. Although the bird flu doesn’t easily spread to people, it’s possible, and a person infected with both the human and bird virus could “create a new influenza virus that could be more infectious to humans,” she said.

In birds, H5N1 is deadly.

Typically spread by wild birds, including those that migrate south as the weather gets colder, the virus thrives in cool, wet weather. Fraser Valley fields provide food and an inviting place to overwinter.

“It’s a bit of a mixing pot,” said Burns. “There’s probably more opportunities for wild birds to shed the virus.”

A well-intentioned person trying to rescue a sick goose can also spread the flu, as can walking through bird droppings on the ground or in a puddle of dirty water.

Farmers may check on their flock at night and see nothing unusual, only to return in the morning and find them dead or dying, said Amanda Brittain, spokeswoman for the B.C. Poultry Association.

It’s a devastating experience that kicks off a process involving euthanizing the surviving birds and letting them compost inside the sealed barn. Cleaning and disinfection processes are led by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Once the risk has passed, getting new chickens can be difficult as other farms may also be looking for chicks.

Although farmers have insurance, the financial losses are significant and compounded by the emotional strain.

“Farmers are doing everything they can to protect their flocks,” said Brittain. “They’ve got the highest biosecurity measures in place, but the virus is still getting into barns.”

The big question is how. Methods that protected commercial poultry in the past don’t seem to be working as well against H5N1.

Since 2004, when B.C. experienced its first significant avian flu outbreak and 16 million birds in the Fraser Valley were culled to prevent its spread, chicken farmers have vastly improved biosecurity and largely kept outbreaks at bay.

Going from her house to her barn, Clarke changes her shoes no less than three times in addition to putting on different coveralls. Her barns are behind a locked gate and no vehicles are allowed to drive close except to pick up eggs and deliver feed. Any tools leaving the barn are bagged and cleaned, with the process happening again on return.

It’s become a way of life, she said.

But with the virus rapidly spreading in spite of those measures, it’s unclear how long farmers can deal with the “new normal.”

“When I hear about friends, other farms, that have it, my heart stops,” said Clarke. “We’re leaning quite hard on each other. We reach out to those who are going through it and offer support.”

Clarke said she hasn’t heard of anyone planning to quit.

“Farmers are tough,” she said, noting that some of the farms in her area also lost flocks in the 2021 flooding.

Brittain said the poultry association is following research being done in B.C. and around the world. France has decided to vaccinate 64 million ducks against H5N1, although the move prevents them from exporting the birds because vaccination makes it hard to detect bird flu.

“It’s become an international trade issue,” she said. “Once the science catches up and figures out what is happening, maybe there’s a way we can live with this. But at this point, the amount of stress and anxiety this is causing, I don’t think it can be the new normal.”

Burns said the unprecedented nature of H5N1 makes it difficult to predict what will happen next.

Last winter, infections in B.C. peaked in mid-December. The same could happen this year, with another bump in the spring when migrating birds return.

Wild birds have developed immunity to past strains of bird flu, sometimes within a few months. While that hasn’t yet happened with H5N1, there’s hope that will still happen, although it could take longer, possibly three to five years. Ultimately, the future of the virus remains unknown, said the chief vet.

Burns said there is no risk to food safety from the outbreak as people can’t get the avian flu from cooked poultry, and no meat or eggs from infected farms is making its way into the food chain.

Brittain said that under Canada’s supply-managed system, B.C. can get chicken and eggs from other provinces to make up for any short-term shortages, so she didn’t anticipate price increases, but noted prices at the grocery stores are set by food retailers. Christmas turkeys should also be available, although five local turkey farms have been hit.

Back in Chilliwack, Clarke continues to watch the skies.

A freezing winter could send wild birds south in search of warmer weather. A swirl of snowflakes instead of snow geese would be a welcome sight.

gluymes@postmedia.com