Avian influenza continues to infect a growing number of Ontario poultry farms and it’s the more pathogenic version — now the worst outbreak seen in more than a decade.
As of Thursday evening, April 6, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has tallied Avian flu (N5H1 virus) outbreaks at 10 Ontario flocks, 4 of them emerging in the last two days. The virus was first detected at commercial turkey operations in the Townships of Guelph/Eramosa (March 27), Zorra (March 28) and Woolich (March 30). Two backyard mixed poultry flocks turned up with the disease — one north of Wiarton (March 31) and another west of Guelph (April 2). An outbreak in farm ducks was discovered in the Township of Centre Wellington (April 4).
The latest 4 outbreaks turned up in unspecified poultry flocks: April 5 in Markham and Prince Edward County (a backyard flock); and April 6 in Chatham-Kent and again in Markham.
All infected flocks were destroyed and the premises quarantined.
Eight carcasses of wild birds in Ontario are also confirmed cases of H5N1.
The contagious sickness is a concern both for its impact on the poultry sector and, according to Public Health Canada, the potential to spark the next human flu pandemic — although transmission from birds to people is considered rare. Human H5N1 infections “have been associated with severe disease and death,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
The current bird flu outbreak — the first to reach Canada since 2015 — started last year in Europe, devastating commercial farms with its high mortality rate. The disease is spread by wild birds, with migratory waterfowl posing a “significant risk” to domestic birds along migration routes.
So what are farmers to do to keep the virus away from their flocks?
“Biosecurity is really the key for keeping it out,” said Chesley-area turkey farmer and chair of the Feather Board Command Centre overseeing the avian flu response, Ingrid deVisser. The virus is easily spread on droplets carried into a facility by people or animals and modern poultry barns and feed facilities don’t accommodate easy entry by birds and other wildlife, she added. However, farmers must be vigilant about where they even walk to ensure they don’t track feces from geese onto their farms, deVisser said.
She explained that producers change their footwear going into and out of their barns as a matter of course. But amid the current outbreak, poultry producers are also encouraged to put up gates at the end of their laneways, and to wash the wheels and wheel-wells of vehicles entering and exiting their properties. That recommendation becomes the law within several control zones the CFIA has established within the province, in the neighbourhood of each infected flock.
Even the garbage must be specially carried out in specially sealed plastic bags to prevent attracting birds, according to Bishop-Spencer.
“The emotional toll is huge,” deVisser said. The last avian flu outbreak in 2015 was not as bad as this one, she added.
Producer vigilance and monitoring of their flocks remains vitally important. Cases to date have all been the result of farmers noticing something wrong with their birds and reporting it, she said.
Preventing poultry feed and water from coming into contact with wild birds — particularly ducks and other wild waterfowl — is a key long-standing safety measure. This can be as basic as not building a duck pond or hanging a bird feeder anywhere near a poultry barn, Chicken Farmers of Canada spokesperson Lisa Bishop-Spencer said.