Chicken farmers brace for more bird flu cases as wild birds migrate


Alberta chicken farmers are bracing for a second wave of avian flu infections this fall as the province’s flock death toll tops one million.

As migratory birds – natural carriers of the bird flu virus – fly south, more cases are expected. And two newly declared outbreaks on Alberta farms are putting already strained poultry producers.

“We’re all a little nervous about this fall migration,” said Jeff Notenbomer, owner of Willow Creek Poultry, a broiler chicken operation near Lethbridge.

Although there is hope that operators are better prepared to prevent infection, farmers wonder where and when the next outbreak will occur, Notenbomer said.

New outbreaks and the return of birds like wild geese have heightened concerns about the spread, he said.

“We didn’t know what we were going to see in the fall and now we’re starting to see the start of something,” said Notenbomer, who is also president of Alberta Hatching Egg Producers, which regulates egg production in grill in the province.

“That’s a concern.”

Migratory birds are believed to be responsible for a series of outbreaks of a highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 avian influenza, which is now responsible for the deaths of more than 2.3 million cases in Canadian flocks and a series of outbreaks around the world.

Cases declined this summer after the spring migration period, but this year’s global outbreak has already taken its toll on Alberta herds. The province has been the hardest hit in Canada.

Avian influenza is a reportable disease in Canada. Federal inspectors respond to outbreaks by establishing quarantine areas and ordering the destruction of all birds on site.

According to a Wednesday update from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, about 1,075,000 birds have been infected, 3,000 more than last week’s update. The total includes birds that died from the virus and others that were euthanized.

Cases have been detected in a total of 37 operations since Alberta’s first case was confirmed in Mountain View County on April 6. There are 18 active households. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Outbreaks have been declared in 37 total operations since Alberta’s first case was confirmed in Mountain View County on April 6. As of Wednesday, there were 18 active outbreaks.

The latest outbreaks were declared on farms in Starland County and the Municipal District of Willow Creek on Tuesday.

The disease can be spread to birds through contact with infected poultry and poultry products.

The virus can spread on contaminated clothing, equipment, even straw or shavings used as bedding in barns.

Health officials say that while bird flu can sometimes cause illness in humans, it is rare and believed to be the result of close contact with infected birds or heavily contaminated environments, not eating infected meat from of an infected animal.

With the Willow Creek outbreak about 20 kilometers from Notenbomer’s farm, he is reassessing his biosecurity protocols and hopes to prevent infection from his hatcheries.

Avian flu was first detected in Canada in 2004, but this year’s strain is different.

The new strain is highly transmissible and appears to persist in wild birds – particularly raptors, corvids and waterfowl species – while killing them in unprecedented numbers.

(Canadian Food Inspection Agency)

Margo Pybus, wildlife disease specialist with Alberta Fish and Wildlife, said it’s important for farmers to maintain strict biosecurity protocols in the coming weeks.

The risk of transmission between wild and domestic birds will be high.

She also warns that it is unclear which virus strain migrating birds will bring back from their summer breeding grounds. Communities in Canada’s North will be the first to know.

Alberta had a clearer picture of infection risks in the spring, Pybus said.

Birds flying north over the United States provided conservation officials and industry with important clues about the transmission and severity of the new strain, before that risk swept across borders from Alberta.

“In the spring, we were lucky because we could see what was happening at the southern end of the migration route,” she said.

“But for the fall migration, that’s changing. And now we’re the first groups to see one of the arctic migratory birds as they go further south, so we really don’t know what’s going to happen. .”

Migratory birds, including geese, carry the bird flu virus and can transmit the infection to domestic birds. (iStock/@arlutz73)

Wild birds flying south this fall will be carriers, but it is hoped the virus will have mutated and may prove less virulent and less lethal, Pybus said.

Like COVID-19, the virus could become less severe as it spreads from host to host, she said.

“We certainly hope it won’t be as deadly as the version of bird flu that was here in the spring. But we won’t know until those birds really start coming down in large numbers and find out if our program of surveillance gives us reports of birds dead or not,” she said. “We’re all holding our breath.

The province is testing wild birds for signs of infection, she said. No wild cases have been detected since late July, but the province will continue to investigate bird deaths to track any mutations.

Dr. Dayna Goldsmith, a veterinary pathologist at the University of Calgary, said the strain has proven incredibly unpredictable, with cases also being confirmed in mammals including skunks and foxes.

She said the hope is that wild and domestic birds exposed to the virus this spring will have improved immunity against infection in the coming weeks.

“Disease control on the wildlife side is always very difficult, especially with something like this that is so easily transmitted and can infect so many different species,” she said.

“Unfortunately, we just have to let the population reach a balance.”


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